Narcissists have a low chance of getting better, because the nature of their personality disorder causes them to believe they are better than others, and it is difficult for them to accept feedback. Early in my coaching career, I came up with a list of questions to ask new potential clients to uncover if they are coachable or not coachable. In reality, I was screening for narcissists, because I know I am not capable of curing narcissism. I wanted to only accept clients I could be successful working with, and who would accept the feedback and improve.
We see a lot of narcissism in senior roles at companies, because quite frankly, self-promotion works. In addition, narcissists can be the most charming people, when they want something. This can be very beneficial to their success when climbing the ladder. If you work for a narcissist, you know that you must remain on high alert at all times. One minute they can be overly sweet and complimentary, and the next they are interrogating you, or criticizing you. If you do something that makes them look bad, watch out! As long as you give them what they want, and always make them look good, they will leave you alone.
Narcissistic individuals have very difficult time forming real relationships, because they are concerned mostly about themselves, and what other people think of them. They obsess about getting attention, what people say about them, and self-promotion. They ignore the needs of their peers, direct reports, partners, unless they will benefit directly from engaging. They become enraged when someone slights them, ignores them, or does not include them. The reality is, they are not healthy people, so they are incapable of having healthy relationships at work, and in life.
I recently attended an event where a woman arrived wearing a dress that was not the appropriate attire for the occasion. It was ill fitting, did not highlight her features well, and not age appropriate. The reality was, she wanted people to look at her, to notice her, so she wore this type of dress for attention. In her mind, she looked amazing, and we were all looking at her with envy. The opposite was true, based on the conversations I overheard at my table. This is a definite sign of someone who has a personality disorder blocking reality.
If you are managing a narcissist, they will become defensive when receiving any negative feedback, while remaining hungry for public praise or credit. This can be exhausting and frustrating for a busy leader trying to drive outcomes across a team, and very disruptive to the other team members. With narcissists, you can sense that they believe they are smarter and more capable than everyone else.
One of the best books I have read about narcissists and other personality disorders in the workplace is, “Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job,” by Alan A. Cavaiola. The author does a great job at describing the various types of difficult people, and the corresponding personality disorders.
The best advice I have for anyone dealing with a narcissist is to accept the reality that you can’t change them. This may sound harsh, but it is liberating to hear because many times we can question our ability as a leader or manager when a direct report is not responding to feedback and coaching. With true narcissists, the reality is, they never will.