Trick or Treat? Halloween is only once a year, but as we’re all too aware, monsters can lurk in our midst at any time. Many workplaces have monsters of their own, and one of those is the narcissist. You know, that colleague who somehow manages to revert every topic of conversation back to himself; the manager who is always bragging about having the latest, greatest achievement; the executive who declares constantly that she is smarter and just generally better than you at everything.

That endless self-centredness is classic narcissism, but sometimes the signs of narcissism are a little more nuanced. So how do you spot this kind of monster, and what can you do to deal with them – and not get hurt?

As a leadership coach and manager I’m mindful that much of my work involves coaching social, communication, empathy and leadership skills. But I am also aware that if there’s a narcissist in the room, I’m offering them new skills with which to ‘monster’ other people for their own benefit. Narcissists pose a complex problem.

According to Dr Joseph Burgo, author of The Narcissist You Know, “Narcissism exists in many shades and degrees of severity along a continuum”. We can all display narcissistic behaviour at times, but a true narcissistic personality has at its heart two key features: a lack of empathy for other people and an inflated sense of self-importance.

Other researchers have found that there are two quite different underlying patterns of narcissism, and it’s important to know the difference if you’re to handle them appropriately.

A vulnerable narcissist has a weak inner core – their self-centered claims of greatness mask low self esteem, even when they may in fact be high achievers. Believing they are worthless and incompetent, they bolster their ego by undercutting and obstructing others’ achievements – often sneakily.

A grandiose narcissist on the other hand isn’t masking anything. They truly believe in their own greatness, and may even be almost as good as they think they are. They can also be Machiavellian (manipulative) in their efforts to stay on top, and may go to extraordinary lengths to ‘score points’ off others.

Recent research on grandiose narcissists has revealed a new and intriguing piece of evidence that we can add to the jigsaw puzzle of narcissist behaviour. A team of Hungarian researchers scanned the brains of narcissists who scored highly on the Machiavellian scale during a simple game of trust. They reported in the Journal of Brain and Cognition that their brains went into overdrive when they encountered a partner who exhibited signs of being fair and cooperative. Why? Tamas Bereczkei and his team say it’s because, if you play fair, Machiavellians brains go into a spin to work out the best way to take advantage of you. But playing hardball doesn’t get you anywhere — when you’re mean to them, their brains barely fire a synapse in response — antagonism is what they expect from others, and they’re well armed for it.

So how do we navigate through the monsters among us? Dr Susan Krauss Whitbourne says that, handled properly, the grandiose narcissist can be your best ally if you need to put other people to best use – as long as you can get them on board with your goals. If they’re given the right level of reassurance, the vulnerable narcissist can settle down and focus and can even change with enough support.

Writing in Psychology Today, Whitbourne has proposed eight points for dealing with narcissists:

  1. Determine which type you’re dealing with. In contrast to grandiose narcissists, vulnerable narcissists are less “out there” with their emotions, and they tend to be sneaky – ‘white anting’, as the Australian phrase goes. Grandiose narcissists are far more obvious – they make no secret of their ego.
  1. Acknowledge your annoyance. Narcissists can be antagonistic and get under your skin. If you’re trying to get something done, and one person is always interrupting or trying to shine the spotlight on himself or herself, recognising where your frustration is coming from can help give you the strength you need to put a stop to it.
  1. Appreciate where the behaviour comes from. Vulnerable narcissists need to make themselves feel better about themselves by tripping others up. Once you recognise that they are coming from a place of insecurity, you can provide them with just enough reassurance to get them to calm down and get on with the task in hand. Too much reassurance and you’ll fan their egocentric flames, but the right amount will stop their need to undercut and obstruct.
  1. Evaluate the context. Narcissism is not an all-or-nothing personality trait. Some situations may elicit a person’s insecurities more than others. Let’s say a woman was turned down for a promotion she wanted very much, and now must continue to work with the person who got the job. Her insecurity may worsen with time, leading her to become defensively narcissistic, vindictive, and spiteful. If you know a person like this, it’s important to remember that the situation helped create the monster with whom you must now interact.
  1. Maintain a positive outlook. If you are dealing with narcissists who derive pleasure from watching others suffer, then seeing the pain they cause will only egg them on to more aggressive counter-behavior. Don’t look ruffled, even if you’re feeling annoyed, and eventually that behavior will diminish in frequency. Furthermore, by keeping the previous tips in mind, you may be able to help ease the situation so things actually improve.
  1. Don’t let yourself get derailed. It’s easy to lose your own sense of purpose or goals when a narcissist tries to take center stage. You don’t need to attend to everything this person says or does, no matter how much he or she clamors for your attention. Find the balance between acknowledging the narcissist and moving ahead in the direction you want to pursue.
  1. Keep your sense of humor. Calling a narcissist’s bluff can mean that you meet their bluster with a laugh at least once in a while. Without being cruel about it, you can point to the inappropriateness of their egocentric behaviour with a smile or joke. This would be particularly appropriate for the grandiose type of narcissist, whose ego is strong enough to find it entertaining and possibly instructive.
  1. Recognise that the person may need help. Because some narcissists truly have low self-esteem and profound feelings of inadequacy, it’s important to recognise when they can benefit from professional intervention. Despite the belief that personality is immutable, psychotherapy research shows that people can change even long-standing behaviors. Bolstering the individual’s self-esteem may not be something you can tackle on your own, but it is something they can work on with outside help.

It is of course possible to have some traits of narcissism without having full-blown, clinically diagnosed narcissistic personality disorder, which is when narcissism starts to have a serious, negative impact on our workplace, everyday life and relationships. Hopefully the tips above will give you some pointers on how to deal with colleagues anywhere on the narcissist spectrum, and to keep the monsters at bay this Halloween.

Do you work with a monster in your workplace? What are your strategies for keeping it functional?