Successful Supervisor Part 29 – Coaching a Narcissist

June 3, 2017

The definition of a narcissist is a person who has fallen in love with his own appearance and abilities. The etymology of the word comes from a Greek hunter named Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water.

Supervisors sometimes need to deal with a narcissist, and usually it turns out to be someone higher in the management chain than she is. I will give some advice for that situation in this article, although it is possible that the narcissist in the supervisor’s life could be one of her direct reports, or even herself. How you deal with it depends on who it is.

Narcissism is known in trait theory as a psychological disease, but it plays out in organizational life to varying degrees daily, and it can be a major headache to people who have to deal with the person who has it.

Warren Bennis put it this way, “One motive for turning a deaf ear to what others have to say seems to be sheer hubris: leaders often believe they are wiser than all those around them. The literature on executive narcissism tells us that the self-confidence top executives need can easily blur into a blind spot, an unwillingness to turn to others for advice.”

Leaders who are convinced they are so macho and smart have a difficult time hearing what people are really saying. I love James O’Toole’s observation,

“…it is often the presence of excessive amounts of testosterone that leads to a loss of hearing.”

How can you recognize if you have the problem?

If you have a problem with narcissism, then you are most likely unaware of it. If you have a particularly bad case of it, you are even more likely to be unaware of it.

One way to determine if you have narcissistic tendencies is to ask other people. You can ask your spouse, your supervisor, a good and trusted friend, or a mentor. If the input from others indicates you might be a narcissist, then at least you know about it now and can seek out some help to deal with it.

I suggest getting a leadership coach to listen to your story and give you some tips that are specifically designed to help you. I also recommend reading about Emotional Intelligence. My favorite book on the topic is Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Bradberry and Greaves.

It is common to find more tendencies toward narcissism as you go up the organizational ladder, so the next part of this article will include tips on what to do if your boss or some other higher leader is narcissistic.

Why is narcissism a problem?

For people in the organization, having a narcissistic manager somewhere in the chain above them can make life pretty miserable. They have to endure a manager who has an inflated view of his or her own wisdom and has little interest in the collective wisdom of the group.

A narcissist manager severely limits the creativity and engagement of the workers, and thus has a major negative impact on profitability.

Trying to point out the problem to a superior only makes matters worse, because the manager has no intention of listening. In many cases, employees suffer in silence for years rather than speak up and get decapitated.

Let’s look at one approach to avoid and follow up with some suggestions for positive things you can try.

One approach to avoid

It would be easy, but ineffective in most cases, to just tell the boss “don’t be so full of yourself” and show the benefits of humility. Unfortunately for the narcissist leader, changing the thought patterns and behaviors is extremely difficult. Besides, in most cases, the narcissist is blissfully unaware that he has a problem.

Daniel Goleman also noticed the same tendency when he identified that leaders with low Emotional Intelligence have the most significant blind spots.

So a direct approach to correct narcissistic tendencies is likely to backfire.
You can’t just march into the bosses office and say, “You are a total narcissist, knock it off and get down from your pedestal.” You need to use a water drop treatment with lots of Socratic Questions.

The issue of leader hubris is perhaps the most common schism that exists between the senior levels and the supervisors or workers. If it is so important, what can we do about it? Is there a kind of anti-hubris powder we can sneak into the orange juice of over inflated executives? Oh, if it was only that easy.

One possible solution: education

What we are talking about here is reeducating the boss with influence from below. We want to let him know that his own attitude and behaviors are getting in the way of trust.

Reeducating the boss is always tricky. It reminds me of the adage, “Never wrestle a pig…you get all muddy and the pig loves it.” What do the sailors do if they are facing a Captain Bligh every day? Mutiny is one option, but it can get pretty bloody.

The road to enlightenment is through education, but how do you get an unaware manager to warm up to being educated? One suggestion is to form a kind of support network with other supervisors and leaders on the topic of leadership. Book clubs where employees, along with their leaders, take a lunch hour once a week to study the topic can begin a constructive dialog.

Try a slow shaping process

Shaping the thought patterns of a superior in the organization is a slow process, like changing the face of the planet in Arizona. Drop by drop and particle by particle, the sand and soil have been moved to reveal the Grand Canyon. Changing a leader’s approach might not take eons, but the slow shaping process is the same, only in human years.

Having the boss select the books to review is a nice technique for getting him involved in the process in a positive way. Try to avoid singling out the offending manager for retraining. Express a need to improve the leadership capabilities of everyone on the team (and that includes the boss). That way, peer pressure among the other managers can help educate the narcissistic manager in a way that is artful and effective.

Some leaders will remain clueless regardless of any effort to correct it. I know one leader who will go to her grave totally blind when it comes to her attitude about her own capability and superiority. If she was reading this passage, she would be nodding her head affirmative and be 100% convinced that I was referring to somebody else, not her.

Perhaps the only hope for a leader like this is some form of radical shock treatment in the form of a series of pink slips.

If you are dealing with a serious case of narcissism, having a leadership coach can help a lot, but you first have to get the boss to agree to some coaching. Try suggesting some coaching for the entire leadership team, then that will cover the boss as well.

What if the Narcissist reports to the supervisor?

If the problem person is below you, then you need to coach the person yourself or get some outside help. I would start by having the employee work through the Emotional Intelligence 2.0 book with you. That will form the basis of many substantive discussions and some significant growth.

The above tips may help you work out of a problem with narcissism, but do recognize the challenge is great. Narcissism is more common than we realize, and it is not easy to cure. It is something you need to work on if you are experiencing a problem in this area.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Trust: Top Down or Bottom Up?

July 14, 2013

Top DownIn an organization, trust is generated from the top down rather than the bottom up. Sure, it is important for employees as well as leaders to be trustworthy, but the culture that allows trust to kindle and flourish is usually created by the leaders of the organization rather than the workers.

It is astonishing for me to see the blind spots that many leaders have about how pivotal their behaviors are to how trust is manifest in their entire organization. If the top leader or leaders do not act with integrity and consistency, it creates loops of “work around” activity in all of the other layers. There gets to be a kind of pseudo-trust where people look the part and act the part on the surface, but it is only skin deep. Under the surface, the ability to hold onto trust is as leaky as a bucket that has been used for target practice.

Of all the behaviors leaders display, I think one shines out as being by far the most powerful for sustaining trust, yet simultaneously the most difficult for leaders to master. That is the ability to create an environment free of fear for disclosing one’s opinions about the leader’s actions. In most cultures, people are punished if they express reservations about what the leader is saying or doing. Those cultures continually dampen the ability to sustain real trust, and you get the plastic variety that is evident in many environments.

In brilliant organizations, leaders encourage and reward sharing of scary stuff. I call this skill “reinforcing candor,” because it means the leader is not only open to criticism but actively seeks it. The few leaders who are able to understand the power of reinforcing candor have an easy time building trust and rebuilding trust that has been compromised. This trust is genuine and sustainable; it is not the faux-trust that is so common in most organizations.

If the generation and maintenance of trust is mostly a top down affair, the ability to destroy trust is more balanced. It is just as easy for the rank and file employees to destroy what trust is there as it is for leaders to do it. Acting in ways that show low integrity is the most common method of harpooning sincere efforts to build more trust. Leaders destroy trust when they are duplicitous and fail to follow through on promises. Employees trash trust when they act without integrity in numerous ways, like stealing from the company or spreading rumors.

The nature of trust is that it is always a relative thing. Trust fluctuates based on the situational context of current actions. One should not always expect to find high trust in any area, even the best ones. There are going to be peaks and valleys, and the smart organizations seek a good average and try to dampen out the spikes, both high and low. It is possible for most groups to make great strides in the trust level if they simply work to understand it and improve it daily. Leaders should not become discouraged if there is a lapse in trust; rather, they should redouble their efforts to maintain it.

M&A Courses – What’s Missing

July 29, 2011

Many educational institutions run courses on Mergers and Acquisitions. Typically these training events run several days and cost thousands of dollars to attend. I was looking at a catalog of courses by one prestigious training group today and read about a course offering. It was striking how all the technical and financial details of the process were dealt with in the course, but the people side of the equation was essentially ignored, at least in the description of the program.

Let’s take a look at the items listed in the catalog for this course on Mergers and Acquisitions:

Benefits of the course

1. Learn how to evaluate prospects
2. Find out what the other company is worth
3. Set the starting offer for the negotiation
4. Learn the legal, tax, and accounting implications of a merger
5. Find out how to structure the deal and negotiate to the best advantage

Items you will learn

1. How to conduct due diligence
2. Anti-trust, legal, and accounting conventions
3. Why select a diversification strategy in the first place
4. Understanding the contracting process
5. How to negotiate
6. Screening candidate organizations for acquisition
7. Financial evaluation

On paper, this sounds like a good course, but wait a minute. Where is the culture mentioned? Where are the PEOPLE? Getting disparate organizational cultures to work well together is the single biggest hurdle in any M&A situation. This is not a “soft” topic. Lost productivity during a M&A process can, and often does, cripple the merged entity.

There have been numerous studies on the failure rates of mergers. For example a 2005 study by Caxton Growth Partners came up with a range of 50% to 80% failures. Most historical studies peg the failure rate in excess of 50%. The common reason given for failure is the inability of the two cultures to form a seamless entity, thereby undermining the viability of the merged unit. Yet in this expensive multi-day course by a highly respected training organization, the issue of culture does not even make it onto the agenda. It baffles me.

The disconnect between what is needed for successful M&A efforts versus what organizations focus their time and energy on is the reason for the low success rate. How about revising the course line up to read something like this?

1. Legal, analytical, and financial elements of M&As
2. Valuation and due diligence processes
3. The negotiation process and confidentiality issues
4. Identifying cultural differences and creating strategies to unify the groups
5. Dealing with the human trauma of M&As so that the best people do not walk
6. Having a realistic integration plan that takes human acceptance into account
7. Evaluating the progress of cultural integration
8. Leadership issues in managing a joined entity

A course like that would be getting at the true success factors for a merger or acquisition. I suppose there are some courses that do have a balanced view, but I think the omissions in this one high-profile course are indicative of a blind spot some respected training organizations have on the nature of merged groups.