How to Mentor a Narcissist

No workplace is immune to the self-absorbed and self-important employee. You know the one. Preoccupied with status, appearance, and power, narcissists exude a palpable sense of entitlement, often overestimate skills and abilities (while devaluing others), and can be quite comfortable manipulating others for personal gain.

They can be hard to spot at first; a sophisticated narcissist can create a terrific first impression. What will eventually be recognized as haughty arrogance and grandiose self-importance might at first be misinterpreted as bold self-confidence.

Psychologists define narcissism as a toxic personality syndrome defined by grandiosity, need for affirmation, and poor empathy for others. But developmentally, not all narcissists are created equal. Primary narcissists are what we often call “spoiled” — it’s likely that they had parents who worshipped the ground they walked on, lavished them with exaggerated and inflated praise, and failed to offer honest and balanced assessments of their child’s attributes and performance. On the other hand, compensatory narcissists were children who may have suffered significant emotional abuse or neglect at the hands of parents. To counteract real despair and self-loathing, these children found solace in grandiose fantasy. Although this narcissistic compensation offers an effective escape from emotional pain in childhood, by adolescence and young adulthood the narcissistic behavior has become calcified and dysfunctional.

Odds are that at some point in your managerial career, you will have to mentor a narcissist (or at least a fairly self-absorbed person). Contemporary epidemiologic data shows that narcissism is on the rise in American society, and is more common among men.

But is it even possible to mentor a narcissist? The best mentorships are a two-way street, and effective mentees do things to facilitate and support the mentor’s efforts to guide and grow them. For instance, great mentees admit imperfection, accept correction, challenge nondefensively, transparently share areas of relative weakness and necessary development, demonstrate gratitude for a mentor’s time and commitment, and show empathy and awareness of demands on the mentor, often offering to collaborate on projects to lighten the mentor’s load. Of course, each of these ideal mentee behaviors hinges on personal attributes and aspects of emotional intelligence often lacking in a narcissistic person.

There are other reasons that mentors may struggle in relationships with narcissistic mentees. First, narcissists often suffer real deficits in insight about how and why they annoy others while sabotaging their own success. Psychologists describe their behavior as egosyntonic, meaning they see their behavior as entirely legitimate (It’s all the fools around me who don’t appreciate my special talents; they’re the ones who need to change). These self-enhancing perceptual distortions lead them to take credit for any success and blame others for every failure. Second, as a consequence of their poor insight, narcissistic mentees are less likely to initiate mentoring relationships in the first place (Who, me? I certainly don’t need any help). If assigned to a mentor, they will often engage only for the purpose of criticizing others and seeking the mentor’s affirmation for their inflated self-assessments. Third, mentoring a narcissist may pose some political risk for a mentor. Although one element of excellent mentorship is advocacy and public support, narcissistic mentees may frequently create conflict with others, perhaps reacting with unreasonable anger when questioned or criticized by colleagues or supervisors. As a consequence, the mentor may often be doing damage control and conflict mediation for this mentee. Finally, the narcissist may not be much fun to mentor. Effectively mentoring the narcissist will necessitate difficult conversations likely to trigger defensiveness in the mentee. And the narcissist may feel the need to criticize the mentor at times as a way of protecting a fragile ego.

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