We expect that narcissists will be loud, grandiose, self-important, “out there”.  No all of them are, some are covert narcissists.  Many offices have them, and this is how you spot them.

  1. A covert narcissist may well show that they are the most important person in the room with a quiet smugness. They may also decide that they are the most hard-done-by person in the room and have detailed accounts of how they were cheated of their rights.  They are the “misunderstood special person”.
  2. Like all narcissists, they are self-absorbed, and will talk endlessly about themselves if you give them an opening. A lack of empathy goes with this – they really don’t care about others.
  3. They are very thin-skinned, and if they are a member of your team at work, they will often feel offended, unappreciated, victimised or otherwise hard-done-by. They will be quick to make complaints and take out grievances.  If they are unable to be directly oppositional, they may well be passive-aggressive and sabotage new initiatives.
  4. They are hard to get on with because they cannot really connect with others because of their lack of empathy. They can act in a friendly way, and often they do to drum up support in an office dispute, but they don’t really care about others and can’t keep a relationship going.
  5. Covert narcissist often use hypochondria to build on their persona as a special person who suffers more than anyone else. They might well have a minor disability, or an ongoing illness or sensitivity, in order to ensure special treatment, such as workplace adjustments.  They may use their health as a basis for discriminatory complains and grievance.  This may sound harsh, but you can usually see people in the same workplace with far more serious health or mobility issues who cope with only minor adjustments. This kind of narcissism is very hard to deal with, but it helps if you can identify it.

What is the solution?  Covert narcissists often use the fact that they are hard to deal with to avoid difficult issues such as their own poor performance.  The best way to treat a covert narcissist is exactly like anyone else in your workplace – fairly and in accordance with the rules of your workplace and the laws of the land.  They often use their victim status or their reputation as a difficult person in order to avoid being challenged.  Here are some suggestions for managers:

  1. Take courage. Many covert narcissists get away with all sorts of infractions of workplace rules and practices because no-one wants to have the difficult conversation.  Be that person who is willing to have an uncomfortable conversation.
  2. If you need to challenge this person, know what the context and detail of the challenge is, and stand your ground on it. Get advice from HR if necessary.
  3. Avoid being emotional, making vague or general accusations and defensiveness.
  4. Learn basic assertiveness techniques, for example:
    1. On Tuesday you did not sign out of the building when you left. This is not the first time that this has happened
    2. I feel that you are not taking our procedures seriously.
    3. I want you to stick to these procedures for your own safety and the safety of others.
    4. If you continue to disregard the procedures, I will issue a formal warning to you.
  5. Set a firm boundary and stick to it, making sure that you apply it to all other staff as well. Keep it simple.  When he or she realises that you mean what you say, they will probably back off.  Sometimes they will deliberately defy what you have said, which gives you the opening to take disciplinary action.

Alan Chatting is a psychotherapist and coach, and the author of Evolution and You and Raised by a Narcissist.  For more on narcissism click here.  To work with Alan, click here. Alan’s website is  here.