How to deal with a narcissistic coworker

April 05, 2024

How to deal with a narcissistic coworker

Maintaining emotional resilience is crucial to dealing with narcissistic coworkers.

BY Arianna O’Dell

Picture this: You’ve landed that coveted new job but as you settle into your role, you notice a subtle erosion of your self-worth and confidence. 

This experience might mean you are dealing with a narcissist. An office narcissist is a figure whose insatiable appetite for admiration and knack for manipulation turns the workplace into a battleground of egos. If you find yourself constantly on edge and your confidence wavering, chances are you’re dealing with a narcissist.

Here’s how to identify—and deal with—a narcissistic coworker while maintaining your confidence, mental health, and career trajectory. 

Decoding the narcissistic mindset

Identifying a narcissist is the first step to overcoming their influence. A narcissist is a person who exhibits traits of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), a mental health condition characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. However, narcissists can be deceptively charming and manipulative, making them challenging to spot. Someone needs to meet five of the nine criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to be clinically diagnosed with NPD. These criteria include:

  • A disproportionate sense of self-importance
  • Gestures of grandeur
  • Believing that they are special and better than other people
  • Need for admiration
  • Entitlement
  • Exploiting others for their benefit
  • Lacking empathy
  • Envy of others
  • Arrogant and haughty behavior

While only a therapist can diagnose a narcissistic personality disorder, workers can watch for red flags. For instance, if a coworker belittles others, has an incessant need for admiration, and constantly exaggerates their achievements it is possible that they are narcissistic.

Today, Ted Leonhardt is a career coach and negotiation expert, but he says during his first job working as an illustrator for Boeing he experienced working with a narcissist first hand. “My boss, a guy named Pete, spent most of his time promoting himself to those senior to him,” remembers Leonhardt. “When he interacted with our creative group, he seemed to always glamorize his accomplishments and brag about his connections within the company.” 

Now, Leonhardt believes there are telltale signs to determine if you are dealing with a narcissistic coworker. For example, if you “find yourself feeling bad after conversations with them,” he explains. “You notice the bad feelings after almost every interaction and after a while you realize that conversations are either all about them or put downs on you.”

Establishing boundaries

If you suspect you’re dealing with a narcissistic coworker, setting clear boundaries can help maintain your sanity. Interacting with a narcissist can be frustrating, especially when you feel you have no choice. For instance, they may pry into your personal life or ask uncomfortable questions. To deal with this, assert your boundaries firmly but tactfully. Remember, you have the right to decline discussions or inquiries that make you uncomfortable.

Focus on self-preservation

A narcissist “will do anything to advance themselves. If you seem to be getting in the way, or simply disagreeing with them, they can be vicious,” says Leonhardt. Seeking approval or apologies from the narcissist is futile. Many narcissists lack the empathy to understand the perspectives of others or to offer genuine remorse. Accepting this reality can be challenging, but it’s essential for your well-being when you must work with one. Don’t expect reconciliation or empathy from a narcissist. Instead, focus on healing and moving forward without them. Leonhardt even recommends staying away from a narcissistic coworker, transferring to another group if possible and, as a last resort, finding another job.

Embrace emotional resilience

Maintaining emotional resilience is crucial to dealing with narcissistic coworkers. In order to strengthen your emotional resilience, first recognize that the behavior of your coworker may stem from their own insecurities. However, it has nothing to do with your worth. By being secure about your self worth, you can maintain composure in the face of their emotional turmoil and deny them the satisfaction of eliciting a reaction. By mastering your emotions, you retain control over the narrative and prevent others from undermining your confidence.

Document your journey

Documentation can be a great tool when you are forced to work with a narcissist. Keep detailed records of interactions with them, noting instances of manipulation or gaslighting. These records can serve as invaluable evidence should you need to escalate the issue to HR leaders. Plus, documentation empowers you to talk with your superiors with confidence if needed and protect yourself from further harm. Leonhardt echoes the sentiment but also adds that you need to be prepared for worst-case scenarios, especially if your boss is your narcissistic coworker. “Try documenting your interactions with them,” he says. “Once you have a list try going to HR and reporting them. But be prepared to leave the company. Telling on your boss is risky territory.”

Seek support

Finally, understand that Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a mental health condition. Navigating the treacherous waters of corporate narcissism may require you to seek out support from your friends, family, and coworkers. If you believe you are working with a narcissist, remember to take a deep breath, then focus your energy back on yourself and connect with others to commiserate and support one another. Working with a narcissist can be difficult for even the strongest person, but you don’t have to suffer alone. 

Unfortunately, bullies and jerks often get rewarded at work. Sometimes the bad guys get promoted. But at the end of the day, you can sleep soundly if you treat your coworkers with dignity, respect, and empathy.

How to deal with a narcissistic coworker

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Arianna O’Dell is the founder of Airlink Marketing, a digital design and marketing agency helping companies create digital programs that drive results. When she’s not working with clients or traveling, you’ll find her making fun gifts at Ideas By Arianna and songwriting at Outsourced Feelings. 


 

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