People & Human Resources

Are you working with narcissists? Here’s how to manage them

Emma Koehn /

Everyone’s got a story about a psychopath boss or a colleague who won’t stop stealing their things. But given you’re almost certain to encounter a difficult personality over the course of your working life, do you have the skills to manage them?

San Diego’s High Conflict Institute focuses on how to engage with difficult people at work and in court. Bill Eddy is the institute’s president and senior family mediator at the National Conflict Resolution Center, San Diego. A senior fellow at Monash University, Eddy is in Australia to run the ‘It’s all your fault at work’ conference. SmartCompany asked him how to combat narcissists, psychopaths and paranoid types in the workplace, while also getting the most out of their talents.

Take out the emotion

“These types of people really like insults in the first place,” says Eddy.

This is a problem because your first temptation when faced with a difficult person is to get emotional, he says.

Eddy has spent years looking at the behavioural patterns of those that exhibit narcissism, psychopathy, histrionic and paranoid tendencies, and believes these personality types will pop up in almost every business.

“People are often surprised by the behaviours of high-conflict people initially,” he says. Whether it’s a manager or a customer, you’ll see bad behaviour eventually.

When facing colleagues or employees who have poor control over their emotions or tend to blame others, avoid arguments at all costs, Eddy says.

“Don’t try to give them an insight into themselves, they will not listen. Instead, you should focus very clearly on what the choices are in front of you right now. One of your choices when facing conflict is to just hang up the phone or walk away entirely.”  

Use the “CARS” Method

The conflict institute uses four steps for dealing with difficult people, which are designed to get the best out of the person and their skills. Just because someone is hard to work with doesn’t mean they’re not good at their job:

“Think of the stories of Steve Jobs, a high conflict individual who was well managed,” says Eddy. One approach is to use “CARS” Method.

C – Connecting 

“You want to say things that shows empathy, attention and respect,” says Eddy.

This can involve acknowledging why someone might be struggling and then working to solve a problem together. Things can get messy with high-conflict personality types because they tend to see attempts to solve a problem as an attack, rather than a process.

“You want them to feel like you’re both on the same team. Say ‘Look, I know this is is a hard time, but I want to work together to solve this’,” he says.

A – Analysing 

Once you’ve tried to build a connection, it’s time to move onto the options. Think about what the possible alternatives are for the person who is causing trouble, and spell out the possible outcomes on the table. The key is to avoid ultimatums.

“It turns out that high-conflict people will routinely act in ways that aren’t in their best interests,” says Eddy. “They almost can’t help themselves, so you have to give options in a friendly way.”

“If someone’s always late to work, you shouldn’t say ‘Come in late one more time and you’re fired’. A way to say it well is: ‘If you come to work on time tomorrow, and that’s what I hope for, then that will work. If you don’t, it would mean that I would be forced to let you go’.”

R – Responding 

Often when a staff member is agitated, they will have some kind of misinformation and it’s up to employers and managers to clear this up quickly.

“Someone might think they’re getting a worse deal than other people, and high-conflict personality types will get ready to fight,” says Eddy.

“They might just be misinformed.”

For example, a staff member might be livid that they have been told off for coming into work late. They’ll respond that another employee is always arriving later, when that may not be the case.

“You then have to say, ‘no, they’re not coming in late – I’ve actually got them working the afternoon shift,” says Eddy.

Throw in the internet and you have a whole other layer of conflict when ironing out the misconceptions of your colleagues. Eddy says the “BIFF” approach to email could help with this.

“I’ve seen people write five, six pages defending themselves,” he says.

“It’s guaranteed to make things worse. Instead, make your emails brief, informative, friendly and firm.”

S – Setting Limits 

Just because someone is loud with their complaints doesn’t mean you have to give them all the time in the world to air them, says Eddy.

“These people will not stop themselves. They will keep doing what they’re doing, whether it’s spreading rumours or making threats. You don’t have to wait until someone is done complaining,” he says.

Instead, if you have no time to hear someone’s grievances, get ahead of it early.

“Be friendly, don’t get emotionally reactive. Say, ‘I’ve really got to return to working on this project today’,” he says.

Know when to give up

Eddy says there may well come a time where there’s nothing more you can do in a high conflict situation.

“If you try these methods over and again and it just doesn’t work, that might be all you can do,” says Eddy. That’s when you can think about breaking off the work relationship if you can – but by using the right steps, it hopefully won’t come to that.

“I believe most people can behave better,” he says.

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior journalist at SmartCompany.

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