Here’s how to spot them.
Most workplaces have a narcissist, and they’re not so hard to identify. They’re the ones who know the best way to do everything (and must tell you about it in incredible detail), they crave praise more than caffeine, and they put the “me” into meetings.
“The most important thing to them is how they look and how they’re seen,” says Randall S. Peterson, a professor at the London Business School who studies narcissists in the workplace, in a TEDx Talk.
This type — called the agentic narcissist — is the classic type. In a study, agentic narcissists were more likely to agree with statements like “Superiority is something you are born with” and “I always know what I’m doing.”
But there’s a stealthier kind: the communal narcissist.
Think of them as martyrs with megaphones. They talk endlessly about how the team/office/company would fall apart without them, and they rush to assist in every situation — even ones they know nothing about — because they live to help.
“They are self-appointed saints who have unrealistic views of their contributions to others,” Peterson wrote in the Harvard Business Review. In a study, communal narcissists strongly agreed with statements like “I am the most helpful person I know” and “I will be famous for people’s wellbeing.”
What’s the best way to work with the two types of narcissists?
Well, there’s a good chance your boss may be a classic narcissist. “Our co-workers who overestimate their prospects in life tend to be more willing to take risks, show a desire to win, and come across as competent,” says Peterson. “And they’re much more likely to be selected as leaders.”
First, realize they’re never going to change. So don’t expect them to start asking you about your ideas or your weekend — bring them up yourself.
Then, suggest they delegate simpler projects and tasks and steer them towards initiatives that call for complete overhauls. “They’re really great at rethinking things and blowing them up,” says Peterson.
At times, classic narcissists may harm a workplace if their behavior starts hurting other people and bringing down morale. The way to combat this, advises Peterson, is to drain their sources of support. When they don’t receive positive feedback from others, most narcissists will start to shrink.
With the communal narcissist, encourage them to work with as many teams as possible. “The more people they feel connected to, the more people they’re going to help, and that will benefit everyone,” says Peterson.
Because this type is reluctant to give credit to others — they must always be the biggest helper — make sure your contributions are recognized. While you’re at it, put a word in for your colleagues, too.
But remember, most of us can learn something from narcissists. With classic narcissists, we might steal some of their swagger.
“It could encourage you to give a talk, stand up for what you believe in, and do things you otherwise would not take on,” says Peterson. “This can help us build our self-efficacy and confidence.”
Or, taking a tip from communal narcissists, we might go out of our way to offer to help our colleagues.
If you use it wisely, a little bit of narcissism might be a good thing.