Dealing with a Toxic Narcissist in the Workplace

The nice thing about narcissists – especially the raging ones – is that they aren’t in control of their behavior. They behave pathologically – which means they are insanely easy to manipulate because their behavior in response to certain stimulus is predictable. You can use that to trigger them in certain ways. Run circles around them basically.

The problem is that it is physically and emotionally draining to do this.  Like all bullies, managing their emotional needs takes time away from actually getting work done.  It is better to get the toxic person out of the office and fire them. They are a massive black hole of lost productivity.

I once fired a toxic volunteer from a non-profit I worked at and in 3 years, we had increased volunteer output to 20,000 hours per year. That’s the equivalent of 10 full time employees. That’s a LOT of lost productivity caused by 1 toxic person.

How do you deal with them?  It depends on who they are.  If they are the boss – you either manage their narcissism so that their impact on workflow is minimized, or you quit.  There are no other options if you cannot fire them. You either help manage their condition to create space for everyone else to get work done, or you allow them to wreak havoc in the workplace or you quit.

If they are a co-worker, the best course of action is to manage their narcissism so that it isn’t directed at you or your team while simultaneously setting them up to be fired.  And again, that’s fairly easy to do because their behavior is super predictable.  And to answer your next question – yes – I’ve done this before – successfully on more than one occasion. I’ve only experienced retaliation a few times but could ride that out because of the weakened position of the narcissist by that point. In a couple of the cases the narcissist didn’t know it was me who set them up.

How does someone do this?  You must have a good grounding in how behaviors are shaped and triggered. This allows you to set up conditions that will trigger the narcissist’s bad behavior and gets them to escalate. While you are doing this, you are simultaneously – personally – feeding their ego so they come to rely on you to keep them sane.  You do this to keep the narcissist from interfering with employees and the work flow by keeping them occupied elsewhere.  It’s a defensive move – not an offensive move.

If they are not the boss, you can then trigger their bad behavior in an area that doesn’t impact workflow, but that makes it obvious to upper management that this person is a problem. It takes a little bit of planning and strategizing to do this well.

What you don’t do is try to change them. Narcissism is a personality disorder. If you aren’t a therapist, you can’t fix it and it’s not your job to fix it. Your job is to minimize the harm the narcissist does to the company and the employees and the workflow. It’s pretty much a full time job managing the mental health of a narcissist in the workplace, which is why it’s best if they get fired. But if someone doesn’t take on the task of managing them, they will persist and continue to wreak havoc. This is one of those – someone’s gotta do it situations. Unfortunately.

And before anyone accuses me of not having compassion for someone with a legitimate mental health issue - don't. If they were responsible and taking care of their mental illness and dealing with it constructively - they wouldn't be toxic to the workplace. It's because they aren't dealing with their illness constructively so that they minimize the harm their condition does to others that they are a problem. Until or unless they take responsibility - they will continue to be a blackhole of lost productivity. And again, it's not the employer's or coworker's job to fix them. It's their responsibility to seek the mental health care they need. Not allowing a narcissist to wreak havoc - may actually help them understand - they need help.

If you want to learn more about how exactly - to deal with the behavioral problem that narcissists create - I recommend my comprehensive program on bullying in the workplace. It is 6 hours long. For a reason.

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