22 Feb '11
Dealing with Narcissists
In the wake of my blog on spiritual narcissism which elicited significant interest according to the number of readers, a number have asked, “How do we deal with these folks?” After all, they create considerable relational mayhem and are, “crazy makers.”
If I found myself working for one of these individuals I would find someone else to work for because eventually there will be conflict. Generally I stay as far away from narcissists as I can. The equation changes if one has a narcissist on staff or as a volunteer in your church. In that case, you cannot just stay away but need to somehow manage them in a way that will minimize damage to others.
What makes this so challenging is that because a narcissist thinks he or she is right, they have a built in propensity to resist any feedback that would challenge their behavior. For a narcissist, it is never themselves at fault but always someone else. In addition, almost anything you say to a narcissist will be “skewed” by them because their whole version of reality is skewed. Thus what you communicate to them will often come back to you via others in a form that you don’t even recognize. You say to yourself, "was I in the same meeting as they were?" Because one is not dealing with a healthy individual and because anything you say can and will be used against you if it can be, what you communicate, how you communicate and how much you communicate all becomes important. Finally, remember that narcissists are often experts at emotional triangulation and bringing others into their orbit as allies. When dealing with them, one often finds themselves dealing also with those who have taken up the narcissist’s cause which further complicates the situation. There is a reason I call narcissists “crazy makers.”
With those issues in mind, here are some suggestions for dealing with these folks whether they are on your staff or a volunteer on a team.
Once you are convinced that one is dealing with a narcissist, the first goal is to marginalize their influence with others which is usually destructive to your organization and if possible, move them out of the organization (if paid staff). Their behaviors are simply too toxic to ignore. If they are in a leadership role, you need to find a way to move them out of a leadership role. Remember that for a narcissist, their focus is not primarily the good of the organization but their own universe. Because life is about them they may gladly lead but they will not follow well. What you often discover is that they have built a team that is loyal to them but not to leaders above them in the organization. In fact, in many cases, there is a DNA of mistrust of leaders above fostered by a narcissistic leader.
Be defining with them when their behaviors are problematic and keep up the pressure by speaking into unacceptable behaviors. It is often wise to bring a third party into the conversation so that there is accountability for what is said since what you communicate will likely be skewed. If you communicate in writing, do so with the knowledge that what you write will likely be seen by others. Keep all written correspondence (including emails) and make written notes after each meeting so that you have a record of your conversations. Keep your communication focused on behaviors. In many cases, the less you say the better off you are because a narcissist will try to hook you into debates and endless dialogue to prove that they are right. Don’t get hooked!
Give it time. Because narcissists bring others into their orbit through emotional enmeshment, it often takes time for others to see what you see. This is a case of “giving someone enough rope to hang themselves.” Eventually, a narcissist’s behavior will be seen as problematic by others which then gives you the opportunity to address it without push back from colleagues. If you act prematurely you may regret it because a narcissist will fight back and often not fairly. Wait until you have enough problematic behavior that a reasonable person will say “I get that” if your action is challenged.
In the ministry world a narcissist will often use spiritual language and words like forgiveness, grace, reconciliation, and love to engage in endless dialogue, justify behavior and fend off accountability for their behavior. Don’t be intimidated by the spiritual facade. Focus on their behavior, call it for what it is and remind them that this is about their ability to work on your team.
One last thought. One could ask, where is grace in all of this? The grace is in being defining about what behaviors are acceptable in your organization. In defining this you are giving the individual the opportunity to modify their behavior. Unfortunately, a narcissistic personality disorder is one of the most difficult things to address given the built in and almost impenetrable defenses that make up narcissism. It is also one of the most toxic. Addressing it when it surfaces is all about the health of the organization or team you lead and those who are negatively impacted by the behavior.