12 smart steps to deal with a narcissist coworker

Updated on August 1, 2023
How to deal with a narcissist coworker

Have you noticed that one of your coworkers often acts like they are the center of the universe, constantly seeking attention and admiration from coworkers and higher-ups?

At the same time, the coworker in question often ignores the opinions of others and neglects their needs.

Chances are that you might be dealing with a narcissistic coworker. And this can be challenging and frustrating because narcissists tend to contribute to a toxic work environment through their self-serving behavior.

In this article, we will explain the behavior of a narcissist, how to spot one at work, and ultimately how to deal with them effectively.

What is a narcissist?

Signs you are working with a narcissist

In order to properly deal with a narcissist at work, first you need to understand exactly what a narcissist is and what their primary motivators are. Essentially, what makes them tick – especially in a work setting.

Nowadays “narcissist” is a popular tag used to describe people who are overly concerned with self-admiration. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The reality is that people with narcissistic tendencies are often the ones who are the most insecure. Yet, they are pretty good at hiding it.

It is estimated that narcissism affects about 5% of the US population. It is considered a spectrum, with the most severe cases falling under Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

People with narcissism are constantly anxious, living in a continuous state of assessing potential threats to their ego and overall well-being. (This explains why they are so bad at receiving criticism at work or in any other professional setting.)

Because of this, they are highly observant and aware of their surroundings. They develop an incredible ability to read people, and ultimately, to manipulate how others perceive them.

A narcissist is constantly battling the feeling of being vulnerable by seeking validation and admiration from others.

In relation to this, the most concerning and dangerous aspect of a narcissist emerges: the complete absence of empathy toward others, and in this case, their coworkers, subordinates, and superiors.

In other words, a narcissistic person would take advantage of anyone in order to receive attention and praise.

Signs you are working with a narcissist

It can be hard to spot a narcissist at work where most people are usually highly capable and confident professionals. However, there are certain signs to look out for:

  • Manipulation
  • Arrogant demeanor
  • Sense of entitlement
  • Exaggerated self-importance
  • Need for admiration and praise
  • Lack of empathy toward colleagues/subordinates
  • Competitive behavior (desire to outperform)
  • Exploitation of colleagues/subordinates
  • Playing the victim of circumstances

Narcissism is also strongly related to aggression and violence. But remember that just one or two signs of a narcissistic colleague could easily be misinterpreted.

So always look for several red flags that suggest that your coworker indeed has narcissistic traits.

How does a narcissist act at work?

So how to spot a narcissist coworker? Well, a narcissist at work is like a mischievous shapeshifter.

They can go undetected by their boss and colleagues for months and even years because narcissists tend to be such good actors and manipulators.

All kinds of toxic behavior at work can often be explained through narcissistic abuse. Luckily, most narcissistic people in a professional setting act in a certain way so if you pay attention, you might be able to spot them. Here are certain behaviors that you could see from a narcissist in the office.

Struggle with authority and criticism

Narcissists struggle with taking directions from their superiors or more experienced coworkers, as they may believe that they know best how to handle things.

This usually makes it difficult for them to function effectively within a team, as they may prioritize their own ideas and desires over those of the group.

Because they are overly sensitive, they don’t respond well to even the slightest of criticisms. For example, it would be hurtful to a narcissist even if their boss was trying to be incredibly delicate and constructive when giving them feedback about their work.

Dominating team meetings and group conversations

As narcissistic people crave attention and admiration, they may frequently interrupt or talk over others in meetings and conversations to make sure that they are the center of attention.

They will often try to portray themselves as more knowledgeable and capable than they actually are to inflate their persona, especially in front of company higher-ups.

Taking credit for other people's work and ideas

Narcissists may be quick to claim credit for successes in the workplace, even if they had little or nothing to do with the actual efforts that were made to achieve the results in question.

This can be frustrating for other employees who have put in significant effort on a project and it is often one of the ways through which a narcissist is spotted in a work environment.

Being overly competitive

Narcissistic people often believe that they are superior to others, and may see their coworkers as threats to their own success. As a result, they may engage in overly competitive behavior or actively try to sabotage their colleagues.

For example, let's say that you and your narcissistic coworker were put together to work on a project. However, you were not able to meet the goals that were set.

So even though you share equal responsibility, your narcissistic colleague might have the inclination to throw you under the bus and blame you entirely for the failure of the project.

Also, a narcissist is likely to withhold valuable information that could benefit everybody on the team in order to gain a competitive advantage and achieve better results than the rest of the team members.

They can be possessive and controlling

A narcissist is unlikely to trust other people, especially those who they know on a semi-personal level such as coworkers or subordinates.

As a result, a narcissist might be prone to micromanage others, never fully trusting them and giving them the autonomy to do the work or handle a task.

How to deal with a narcissist coworker

How to deal with a narcissist coworker in 3 effective steps

In this section, we will go over certain steps and measures that you can take in order to counter the narcissist you are dealing with at work.

Here's an interesting idea to get you excited about this endeavor: think of the narcissist as an agent of chaos, volatility, and destruction.

They are the antagonist in this story. This leaves you to take on the role of the hero – the opposing agent who stands for order, stability, and perseverance.

Your mindset and mental stamina will play a key role in this clash of characters so here's the next step in the process.

1. Ensure your psychological safety

Focus on yourself for a moment. Depending on the severity of the situation, you might be dealing with a significant amount of stress.

In order to ensure your psychological safety, you need to be aware of possible worst-case scenarios for you and be mentally prepared for them.

In this case (a work setting), there are at least two such scenarios that easily come to mind:

  • Quitting your job due to stress and unbearable conditions
  • Getting fired (due to a workplace scandal, being blamed for something, etc.)

In all cases, you should take the steps to prepare yourself mentally (and financially) to walk away from your job.

Realizing that the worst possible thing that could happen to you is to leave (one way or another) is your psychological safety net.

2. Distance yourself emotionally from your narcissistic colleague

Emotional distance is something that could be useful to a professional in many different situations.

In this case, it means that you shouldn't take anything that your narcissistic colleague says or does personally, even in cases where they are clearly trying to provoke you.

This doesn't mean that you should be passive when your colleague does something that doesn't sit well with you.

It is simply a mindset that will help you stay calm and collected when you are dealing with an unpleasant situation related to the narcissist.

3. Be mindful of their manipulation tactics

Narcissists are master manipulators. They have a whole repertoire of manipulation tactics that they use to influence others. Here is what you should look out for.

  • Blatant lying and threats
  • Being overly nice to gain your trust
  • Gaslighting (making you question your judgment/sanity)
  • Provocations through passive-aggressive behavior

4. Don't try to change the narcissist

Having an honest conversation with the narcissist and explaining to them in detail what makes them an insufferable coworker is not a good idea.

Remember that what narcissistic people fear the most is being vulnerable. This means that giving them feedback in any shape or form (no matter how polite and adequate) will range from very unpleasant to highly excruciating for them.

In other words, trying to change them as a person is pretty much futile. So don't waste your energy trying to do so.

If you share with them your honest thoughts about them, then it is very likely that they will begin to see you as an enemy and a threat. So it makes more sense to deal with them through covert tactics.

5. Don't try to please or impress the narcissist

What a narcissist craves the most is attention and admiration. If you try to impress your narcissistic coworker or complement them in any way, you might get a positive reaction at first.

But with time you might start to realize that no matter what you do, the narcissist will never truly appreciate you for the person that you are.

In fact, the more you try to impress them or please them, the less respect they will have for you. The reality is that you (and everybody else at work) are just a source of validation they are using to feed their ego. In other words, don't waste your energy trying to please or impress the narcissist.

6. Assess possible threats

Think about all the possible ways in which your narcissistic colleague could bring harm to you, your coworkers, and the company/organization.

Here are several questions that should help with the threat assessment or at least point you in the right direction

  • What kind of control and authority does the narcissist have at work?
  • How does your work role relate to theirs?
  • Does the type of work that you do depend on them in any way?
  • What do other coworkers and seniors think of the narcissist?
  • Is the narcissist “allied” with anybody in the office?
  • Does the narcissist have access to your work computer?
  • Does the narcissist have access to the files that you work on?
  • Does the narcissist have access to any type of sensitive information?
  • Is the narcissist able to take credit for your work and achievements?
  • Is the narcissist able to throw you under the bus and blame you for a failure?
  • Do you have any contact with the narcissist outside of work? (including social media, phone number, etc.)

7. Take measures to protect yourself

Once you have a proper understanding of how the narcissist could pose a threat to you at work, do your best to protect yourself. Here are some specific measures that you can take.

  • Don't work with them on the same tasks and projects (if possible)
  • Minimize the dependency that you have on them (if possible)
  • Don't trust the narcissist about anything
  • Don't trust their workplace allies as well
  • Put a password on your work computer
  • Start backing up your work files
  • Document your work achievements and success
  • Do not communicate with the narcissist outside of work

8. Stick to professional communication

Now that you know what a narcissist actually is and how they function, you can see why it would be best to keep the communication between you and them strictly professional from now on.

If you limit the personal information you share with them, then they won't be able to use it against you.

Remember, they can be quite manipulative and they could use personal facts about you in all sorts of ways to get under your skin.

Also, this way you will be able to avoid serious workplace conflicts that are based on personal attacks. By focusing on work-related communication, you will be able to maintain a cordial dialogue with your narcissistic coworker and keep things drama-free.

9. Document communications and potential evidence

Due to their vindictive nature, a narcissist might falsely accuse you of something that is totally not your fault in an attempt to discredit you in front of your coworkers and superiors.

That is why it's a good idea to document written and online communication with the narcissist. Don't forget that you can also take screenshots of emails and private chats if necessary.

This way, the documentation could serve later on as evidence if necessary. If you are able to disprove their claims with solid proof, then the narcissist will totally lose their credibility and your coworkers and superiors won't trust them anymore.

Who knows, they might even get fired for being malicious.

10. Check what other coworkers think of the narcissist

If the narcissist coworker behaves in an unprofessional and disrespectful way at work, then chances are that other coworkers of yours have noticed this.

So in case you trust them, then consider having a private face-to-face (no evidence behind) conversation with them to see what they think about the narcissist.

This step is somewhat risky so it is important to fully trust the person that you'd approach with this sensitive matter.

However, if it turns out that they share your thoughts, then this will turn the odds in your favor. You'd feel much better knowing that you are not alone in this. Which kind of brings us to our next advice.

11. Form a workplace alliance

If one or more coworkers share your thoughts and views about the narcissist that you're dealing with, then you can team up against them in certain situations, especially when it comes to direct confrontations and finger-pointing.

If your boss and HR become involved, then they will be more likely to find your side of the argument more credible if multiple people back up your claims.

12. Prepare your confrontational vocabulary

If it comes to a confrontation with the narcissist, you need to be prepared and know exactly what to say.

However, it is unacceptable to confront a coworker on a personal level in a professional setting, attacking their personal traits rather than their professional deficiencies.

For example, saying something like “John, you are being a total narcissist right now!” is not credible and appropriate. Instead, focus on confronting the person on a professional level. Here are a few examples.

  • “That's unprofessional because of X, Y, and Z.”
  • “You are refusing to take responsibility for your actions.”
  • “You are attacking me on a personal level.”
  • “Your excuses are not legitimate at all.”
  • “There is no credibility in what you are saying.”
  • “You are sabotaging everybody here through your behavior.”
  • “Your behavior is damaging the team/department/company.”

Think about how these phrases apply to your specific situation. Write down your own versions if necessary combined with your specific examples and arguments.

It's important to have this “script” memorized in order to be in control of the situation and come on top.

How to work with a narcissistic coworker

Working with a narcissist can be a total pain. But it is not impossible. Now that you have a better understanding of how a narcissist functions and how to protect yourself from them, it will be much easier for you to work with them. And here are a few tips on how to do it.

Use their motivations to your advantage

You know that they are motivated by image, attention, and praise. So you can give them little hints and clues that by doing a good job, they will receive exactly what they want. Here are some phrases that you can use:

  • Let's show the boss who is the best around here.
  • I'm sure once we get this done, our boss will be quite pleased.
  • Let's remind everyone else who runs this place.

Don't expect them to respect your boundaries

Setting personal boundaries is something that works with neurotypical people. Narcissistic people on the other hand are more likely to ignore your personal needs and preferences because they lack empathy and compassion.

Therefore, don't expect them to play by your rules, and certainly don't expect them to respect the boundaries you set up for them.

Avoid sharing your personal thoughts with them

By sharing your personal thoughts and beliefs in front of a narcissistic colleague, you are exposing yourself and being vulnerable.

They could use this type of knowledge to attack you in a hurtful way. So keep your personal opinions to yourself when working with a narcissist.

Don't react emotionally to their wrongdoings

Emotional reactions at work are hard to keep under control. Especially when you have to deal with somebody who is acting in an illogical and selfish way.

It's important to keep those emotions in check and not let them guide you, especially when making important decisions.

Avoid power struggles and personal conflicts

With time, you might discover that your narcissist coworker is actually quite power-hungry. It might be within their goals to dominate the workplace.

Be mindful if they are acting like a boss and don't engage in senseless power struggles over trivial matters. Let them have what they want and they will expose themselves as childish, petty, and neurotic.

How to expose a narcissist in the workplace

How to expose a narcissist in the workplace

You better have solid evidence when exposing or accusing a coworker of something. Otherwise, your efforts will simply backfire and you will be seen as not credible.

But as I already explained, attacking somebody on a personal level at work is not professional at all.

The better way to expose a narcissist at work is to call out their unprofessional or sabotaging behavior.

Don't be afraid to raise your voice whenever they do something or behave in a way that hurts the team, the department, or the company. You can resort to the following phrases:

  • It's quite unprofessional of you to do X because of Y and Z.
  • You are absolutely sabotaging our work through your behavior.

These are statements that can't be brushed away that easily. You are addressing the issue on the spot with the appropriate language and your coworkers and superiors will be left with no choice but to address the problems that you see.

How to ignore a narcissist coworker

While ignoring your narcissistic colleague entirely is probably not possible, there are ways to limit your interactions with them. Here is what you can do.

Don't engage in personal conversations with them

Avoid ending up alone with them or having a one-on-one conversation. Simply don't give them the chance to direct their attention toward you.

And if a one-on-one conversation is unavoidable, don't talk about anything else but work. For example, you can say something like:

Hey, sorry, let's stick to the point, I am really busy.

Avoid them outside of work

Don't ever engage your narcissistic colleagues outside of work as they could be even more aggressive and manipulative when not surrounded by their professional peers.

If you happen to meet them randomly somewhere outside of the office, pretend to not see them or simply greet them briefly and move on. If they try to talk to you, just pull out your phone and say that you have to go.

Block them on social media

Your social media profiles are like small windows to your personal life so they present a vulnerability. It's best to not allow your narcissistic coworker to see what you have going on in your life because this is something that they could use against you to attack you on a personal level at work.

My experience working and dealing with narcissists at work

I have been working as a project manager for the same international tech company for more than a decade.

Because my job involves collaborating with lots of different people, I became fascinated with human psychology and the role it plays in the workplace.

Eventually, I noticed that some people are more difficult to work with than others. So it got me thinking, why is that?

This is how I started to research various personality traits and disorders. And so I came to the realization that narcissism in the workplace is actually quite common and quite problematic.

Equipped with my new knowledge, it became much easier for me to spot individuals with narcissistic tendencies.

They had no idea but I was observing them and quietly controlling our interactions through subtle hints and suggestions.

In fact, by understanding them well, I was able to work with the narcissistic coworkers I have had in the past without conflicts and drama.

I'm not saying it was all perfect, I've had my fair share of unpleasant interactions but at least I was able to mitigate these situations.

In the end, it all comes down to the realization that you can't change other people and it is certainly not your responsibility to do so.

What matters is your ability to control your emotions and to communicate professionally and effectively – even the most difficult narcissists at work can be influenced through effective communication.

Frequently asked questions about dealing with a narcissistic coworker

How do I handle a narcissistic coworker who takes credit for my work?

Someone stealing credit for your work can be considered “gross misconduct” which is a serious offense. You should collect your evidence and report the person to your boss and/or immediately. Let them deal with the situation.

What should I do if my narcissistic coworker belittles me or makes me feel inferior?

Employees being belittled and made to feel inferior by anyone is unacceptable behavior. These psychological attacks sabotage your work and productivity. You should report this behavior to your superiors and ask for immediate intervention.

Should I confront a narcissistic coworker about their behavior?

A direct confrontation is not advisable in this case. Remember that they are not good at receiving any type of criticism and feedback. All you'll be doing is exposing your true feelings about the narcissist. They could take this as a personal attack and you will create a true enemy at work. It's best to stick to covert tactics when dealing with a narcissist at work.

Can I seek help from my supervisor or HR department to deal with a narcissistic coworker?

Generally, supervisors and HR staff are supposed to resolve conflicts between coworkers and provide care and support. If you are unable to protect yourself from the behavior of the narcissist, then it's best to seek help from your supervisor and HR reps.

Written by:
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co-founder / office worker
Alex has been an office worker for more than 10 years. He is dedicated to helping other office workers to achieve the perfect life-work balance through well-being, effective communication, and building productive habits.

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