Sometimes, achieving happiness in your job means knowing how to work with some tough people. This series of posts is for those 80% of workers who interact with at least one “toxic” co-worker, manager and subordinate day-to-day. Want to know more? Check out the introductory article to the series.
We’ve defined what a narcissistic personality looks like based on the the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association. Then, we looked at what it’s like to work for a narcissistic boss. Next, we examined what it’s like to work with a narcissistic co-worker. But possibly the most frustration, and potentially damaging iteration of this particular personality disorder comes in the for of a narcissistic subordinate – someone who reports to you.
In the book Toxic Coworkers, a program director tells the story of a narcissistic subordinate who said to him very bluntly “In order to get ahead, I have to do two things: watch my back from those working for me and try to push you out, either by getting you promoted or fired.” Though it’s rare for them to outright say it, make no mistake – this is the mentality you’re dealing with. They may appear to be trying to help you succeed but it is not for the sake of organizational goals or departmental success – they are only interested in their own advancement. And if they see an opportunity to get ahead by throwing you under the bus, they will do it in a heartbeat.
Here are some other traits you can expect to find:
Personality and charisma: They are amazing salespeople and usually have a high level of charisma, which is how they get hired in the first place and is what they use to suck people in. This is typically the type of person you want to hang out with and it’s easy to get pulled into their aura. But don’t be fooled! If the person working for you really does fit the bill of a narcissist, then you are going to see warning signs. Pay attention to them!
Hard workers, with an agenda: They are hard workers, and are very ambitious. However, you have to put this in context: This is what feeds their own self-esteem. It’s not about meeting organizational goals or doing good work. This is how they derive their own self-worth.
The rules don’t apply: A narcissistic subordinate will think that the rules of the organization don’t apply to them. Remember, they view themselves as special, who why should they play by the same rule as mere mortals? They will, however, expect everyone else in the organization to adhere to the rules.
No loyalty: They will shift loyalties as often as they change clothes and will manipulate anyone they think that allow them to get ahead. They will have no appreciation for anyone that has helped them on their journey.
Looks for every opportunity for advancement: Rarely does every project go the way you think, or wish, it would go and great organizations understand that. However, when you have a project that doesn’t go as planned AND you have a narcissistic subordinate, watch out. They will take advantage of every opportunity to make you look bad. Remember, their goal is to get you out, one way or another.
You can never do enough: As their manager, you are probably going to hear over and over again that you’re not doing enough for them. Not only do they see themselves as special, but they also have a sense of entitlement that dwarfs even the most generous compensation packages.
It’s a constant cycle: When you have this type of employee, you’re likely to feel demeaned, inadequate, unappreciated and angry. But you can’t let it suck you in – if you display any of this, you might run the risk of humiliating the narcissist. This only results in them doubling down their efforts to compensate for that humiliation. Remember, this is what drives their own sense of self-worth, and is not something you can curb by trying to put them in their place.
So, what can you do if you find yourself in this position? Here’s how you can help protect your sanity, and your job!
Get the support of your organizational leadership. This really cannot be overemphasized enough. Your subordinate will stop the destructive behaviors towards you as soon as they see that you are in charge and you have full organizational support. If you don’t feel as though you have the complete and total support of your boss (and your bosses boss!), then figure out a way to get it. This type of employee will think nothing of going around you or above you to get you out so that they can take over. If you don’t have your boss’s support, you might have a very real problem on your hands sooner than you think.
Use the evaluation for good, not for evil: Evaluations can be difficult with narcissistic employees because they aren’t open to any kind of criticism. If you suspect you have an employee that fits this bill, use the evaluation as an opportunity to confirm it – have them do a self evaluation beforehand. If they really are a narcissist, you’re likely to get pages of positive feedback and lists of accomplishments, with little to no room for improvement. During the evaluation, keep it fair and start off with a ton of positives - this will help for any criticism you have to be received.
Keep it rational: When you’re dealing with a person like they, they are going to shake your sense of logic to the core! You might start to think that you’re really not doing enough, that you are the problem, that they are right. But you NEED to look at the situation logically. Lay out all of the facts and then look at them with an open mind. It’s not likely that you’re perfect, or have done everything right, but the extreme your employee is presenting is probably way off base. For someone who doesn’t suffer from this type of personality disorder, it is difficult to imagine anyone twisting information and contexts like a narcissist will, but that’s why it’s even more important to keep your sense of logic and rationality about it.
Don’t take it personally. The mantra of dealing with the narcissist! You have always got to remember that your subordinate is the one with the problem, not you. This is how they feed their own self-esteem and it has nothing to do with how good of an employee or a manager you are. Don’t let feelings of self-doubt overcome you – you have got to have a thick skin and stay confident in your convictions.
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