Human Resources Leadership

Strategies for dealing with narcissists in the workplace

The best way to effectively deal with a narcissist is to not deal with them at all. That’s what you can read in many professional books or articles. But sometimes it’s just impossible. A narcissist can be your boss or someone you’re not able to get rid of in your company. He or she can be an expert or a customer who, despite this narcissistic behavior, is a valuable person judging from a business perspective. 

That’s why you need to understand how to spot narcissists and how to deal with them. Luckily, there are some strategies that will let you do it.

Ask Them “What Would People Think?”

Typically, narcissists are not scared of disappointing a single person. But they are afraid to disappoint a crowd, such as a whole team or even an entire department. They feel the need to shine and to be admired by people. That’s why they can feel shame when a whole community is displeased with their actions. 

narcissists scare of disappointing people

According to a study [1], narcissists need to have perfect self-presentation. They need to be seen as great experts and leaders. That’s why when you struggle with a narcissistic person, consider a broader context. When you choose arguments, look for those affecting a crowd instead of just you personally. Your individual opinion can also be less valuable than the opinion of a whole team. Lost faith in their abilities, lack of respect or poor recognition in the company. These are the things that narcissists are most scared of. 

If you want to win a battle with them, you need make sure they realize on their own that their behavior can ruin their reputation. But don’t try to persuade them that their actions make people angry. They are often quite rational and since anger is completely the opposite of that, you won’t get very far with that argument. They will just knock it down to an emotional reaction which doesn’t make any sense. However, disappointment is something that they understand and it can affect their behavior. 

Mind your words

Narcissists know how to use language to their advantage. They know how to make you feel worse with just a tiny remark or comment. It can even be a joke. Just not the one that is supposed to make you laugh, the one that is used to cover up malicious intent. 

That’s why you should mind every word you use while talking to narcissists. If you show them that you’re afraid of your ideas or you’re unsure of what you say, be prepared they will use it against you. Narcissists know how to target flaws and people’s insecurities. To them everything is a competition and they love to win.

While chatting with them you should use only rational arguments supported by real data instead of vague phrases that will work against you. The same goes for sharing secrets and confidential information. The more personal information you share, the more exposed you will be to all sorts of personal attacks.

Use narcissistic energy

Well, here is my unpopular advice. Give them what they want – admiration. But only when they act in a decent and harmless way. Far be it from me to say that you should avoid narcissists. I even believe they can be great experts and valued employees. And yes, you can use them to your advantage. 

If you can align your goals with their goals, you can put yourself in a really powerful position. They know how to shine and how to fight for their desires and it can help you a lot. Still, it is a lot like playing with a tiger, which means that you need to be careful because one day they are going to see you as dinner. 

Nevertheless, you can start with baby steps. Set up a situation in which they can be thoughtful, caring and kind. A situation where a narcissist would be inclined to help others or give compliments. You can put here any sort of behavior you would like them to exhibit. Then align it with admiration and success. Reward their positive behavior and show them that acting fair is the best way to shine. There is a chance they will come back for more praise while still acting toward other colleagues in a respectful way. But remember to always reward behavior, not words.

Don’t get into gossip

Traits of narcissists at work include stonewalling, hostile joking, gossiping about other coworkers, unprofessional comments in the workplace, and lastly, denying the responsibility. Such behavior is often intended to gain sympathy and find a common enemy. I know it’s tempting to gossip about people you don’t like, especially when they have already done something to hurt you. It’s so satisfying to joke about the way your enemy looks like or make fun of someone’s flaws. And why do we tend to behave like that?

do not gossip with narcissists

First of all, a common enemy improves personal bonds. According to a study [2], sharing negative attitude about a third party is particularly effective in promoting closeness between people. That’s why narcissists can use it as a tool while looking for their new supporters and admirers. They know it’s hard to resist joining their malicious jokes. 

Secondly, we love to join such sarcastic groups because it makes us feel better. Another study [3] found out that criticizing an enemy in a group boosts our self-esteem. It just makes us and the group we identify with, more powerful and better in comparison to others. 

But as always, there is a price you eventually need to pay. If you fall into their trap by accompanying them in gossiping, all I can say is “congratulations on becoming another toxic employee”. And if your enemy finds out about your jealous remarks, narcissists are the ones more likely to get away with it. They often have much more supporters and better reputation in a company than you might have. And you’ll be the one that loses recognition after all.


There are a lot of negative notions about narcissists. That’s understandable. If you’re a manager of a toxic narcissist, you’re probably considering firing him or her. But sometimes you just cannot avoid getting tangled up with this “crowd”. 

The key to success is to understand what motivates narcissists at work and what you can expect from them. Despite all their flaws, you should not forget there are advantages to having them around.  You can use their charm to get the job done. And most importantly, not all narcissists are alike. That’s why there is no single set of rules that will work for you. But the more you read about and understand narcissistic behavior, the more accurate weapon you will be able to choose.


[1] William Hart, John Milton Adams, Gregory Kenneth Tortoriello, K. Alex Burton. Personality and Individual Differences 104:48-57. January 2017. Narcissism and self-presentation: Profiling grandiose and vulnerable Narcissists’ self-presentation tactic use. Personality and Individual Differences.

[2] Jennifer K. Bosson, Amber B. Johnson, Kate Niederhoffer, William B. Swann Jr. Journal of the International Association for Relationship Research. 9 May 2006. Interpersonal chemistry through negativity: Bonding by sharing negative attitudes about others.

[3] Mark Rubin, Mark Rubin. Personality and Social Psychology Review 2(1):40-62. 1998. Social Identity Theory’s Self-Esteem Hypothesis: A Review and Some Suggestions for Clarification.