Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ask the Stress Doc

The Corporate Narcissist: Can't Survive with Him, Can't Survive without Him

Q. Dear Doc, I need help deciding how to cope with a workplace Narcissist. He's very skilled (sometimes brilliant). Firing him would affect my business badly. Yet he has caused at least one employee to leave, and exhausts everyone else with his chaotic behaviors. He flashes hot and cold, first charismatic, then raging or rejecting. The worst is his artful evasiveness and/or fabrications when asked direct questions. When he senses female vulnerability, he charms and engages his new "friend" for a short time, then drops her. In short, he creates chaos. Yet, it's hard to let him go because for years he has asked me (and I believed he was sincere) to help him overcome his condition (which he acknowledges one month and denies in anger the next)! Are there effective ways to contain or manage or negotiate with a narcissist to decrease the impacts of his condition in a workplace environment? How can one temper the interaction with the Narcissist to keep him productively on the job?

A. Being a mostly reformed narcissist, maintaining a detached perspective is a bit tricky. I must admit for years I've been talking about starting an NA -- Narcissists Anonymous -- Group: for those of us who are truly legends in our own minds. Anyway...You certainly capture the narcissistic profile: an elusive, often volatile person with some talent and, even more, a bigger sense of entitlement. And while there may be a capacity for some pseudo intimacy, the person's often clueless about emotional boundaries. This individual was likely scarred in childhood -- abandonment, underlying humiliation, trust and control are often key issues. And when the necessary headwork, heartwork and homework is neglected, the person believes he deserves special treatment, both because of his "unique" gifts and because of his previous victimization. And always lurking is instantaneous shame and rage when feeling belittled, misunderstood, ignored, etc. This person's sensitivity is definitely double-edged.

It's also important to underscore the double-edged impact on your business: while there are company benefits to his brilliance, there are painful costs. If left to his own devices, he will be a "stress and chaos carrier" for many other employees, as you document.

As for effective strategies with this guy, several come to mind: 1) limit as much as possible the amount of interaction he has with other employees, 2) have him report to you, less that you are checking up on him, more that you want to stay cutting edge. (You may need to swallow some rage here.) And, finally, the only strategy I believe really has a shot is 3) having a psychological counselor/coach who understands this personality meet with both of you. I also envision two possible directions: a) frame the intervention initially as follows: "I need help in learning how to integrate your creativity and complex and uncommon personality into the organization." (Stroking a narcissist's ego is almost failproof. Or add a touch of humor, this will also appeal to his vanity and be less threatening to a vulnerable ego: "I need help in order to not let you drive me bananas." In light of you being female and of his issues with women, the consultant should be a male. The goal would be to have the narcissist bond with the coach, begin to recognize and control his shame and rage. Hopefully, he will also get some grounding and sense of boundaries with this male authority; b) the second option emerges if you've reached the point of knowing "freedom 's just another word for nothing left to lose." Have a joint meeting with the counselor or conflict specialist, and just be real with your anger and concerns. Let Mr. N know that you'd like to work out any issues the two of you have, support his getting counseling, etc. But you will not be able to accept his dysfunctional behavior in the office. And that's the bottom line! And that's how you...Practice Safe Stress!

Postscript: As for a specific consultant, I'm rested and ready. My motto -- "Have Stress? Will Travel: A Smart Mouth for Hire!" What can I say: Once a narcissist, always a narcissist. ;-)

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, the Stress Doc, a psychotherapist and nationally recognized speaker, trainer, consultant and author