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When A Narcissistic Teammate Rules Your Work Team

The warning signs are all there, and you've worked through the checklist to conclude that one of your teammates is definitely a narcissist. This dude puts the "I" in "team," but everyone on the team loves him.

Every time the narcissistic work peer speaks in a commanding and confident tone, the team leans in to hang on every word. Your teammates seem happy to bask in this co-worker's shadow.

Except for you, that is! You know "the type" all too well, because you've experienced these "tendencies" in a friend, significant other or family member. What an experience it was at the time, too! You're still recovering from it. Yikes.

Bottom line: You were fooled once, and you won't get fooled again. You cannot understand how your co-workers fail to see what is plain as day, right in front of all of you.

If you work long enough, then you will encounter the work environment where you're the only employee who sees right through the narcissistic teammate who has managed to become the center of the team's universe. Narcissists can do very well on the job, working their way up to top positions of power. The modern workplace is tailor-made for their brash, outspoken, "me-first" ways. Our work culture encourages (no, worships) the unrelenting confidence and grand ambition that the workplace narcissist brings to the table.

It's easy to get swept up in the narcissistic teammate's magnetic presence. They always have something dramatic going on, and they're more than happy to tell everyone about it. But you've watched the narcissist promise the moon while failing to deliver, and occasionally display an amazing lack of empathy toward fellow co-workers. You're not impressed, but your teammates (including your team lead!) still rally around the narcissist.

Now you feel alone and bewildered as you listen to the narcissistic work peer waste another meeting turning the conversation back to himself. How did the team become all about the narcissistic team member?

Vulnerable Workplaces
Some work environments are more at risk for what I'll call "narcissistic blindness" -- e.g., when an entire team falls under the spell of an engaging narcissist, except for the one averse team member who isn't having any of it. Work teams that skew heavily in favor of one gender can be particularly vulnerable to the narcissistic teammate. Studies have shown we're much more likely to spot narcissism in someone of the same gender, but we have more trouble seeing it in members of the other gender. So a woman can identify a narcissistic female much more easily than a man can, and vice versa.

"Cool" workplaces highly dependent on external appearances are also at risk of having a narcissistic teammate who becomes the hub to the team's spokes. After all, the narcissist lives an externally-focused existence, so if a company's entire work culture is all about appearances and being aggressive and outspoken, then having a narcissist on the team is like peanut butter meeting chocolate. A good match.

Over time, narcissists work to build the rest of the team around themselves. They know when they don't "have" somebody in their wheelhouse, too. You're the skeptical teammate who has somehow gotten away! As payback, the narcissistic team member might try to throw you off-balance with their sarcastic (and sometimes downright mean) comments, make you feel odd or unwelcome, talk about you behind your back, sabotage you on the job, and generally make your position on the team unpleasant.

A Fragile Balance
What can you do when a narcissistic teammate has beguiled everyone else on your team but you?

First, please realize how lucky you are. Yes, lucky. You were the one team member able to see right through this co-worker's very thin skin! There's a lot to be said for reading this team situation correctly. Pat yourself on the back and trust your instincts, because they are very good.

You'll need to be very careful how you navigate this situation. Pointing out the obvious to your teammates probably won't pay off because they are under the narcissist's dizzying workplace spell. Uttering the newsflash "Wow, you are such a narcissist!" during a team meet could backfire, big time! Your teammates will likely rush to the narcissistic co-worker's defense. Now you're doomed in the court of workplace opinion.

You will also incur the wrath of the narcissist by speaking truth to their power, which could hurt you on the job and even more so if this co-worker eventually gets promoted. Promotion is always a possibility if management has also been taken in by the narcissist. Weigh the narcissist's potential path through the company in framing your responses going forward.

You face a fragile balance every day between staying in the team's good graces and deflecting the narcissistic team member's desire to control the team. It's not an easy place to be! Focus on staying in the team's good graces, because you need a few other colleagues on your side should the narcissist suddenly try to make everything go pear shaped for you. Keep your workplace interactions very professional at all times, and make sure to work in a few clutch saves for stressed-out team members to build your teamwork cred. Do the right thing because it's the right thing to do.

When a narcissistic work peer pulls the team's strings, "teamwork" can mean helping the narcissist. Don't allow yourself to be manipulated into completing the narcissist's work, fixing their mistakes, staying late to make their calls, doing half the work while they take all the credit. Focus on your own workload unless a task must happen this minute to save a project, help a customer, or please your team lead.

The Unfortunate Truth
It stinks, but you're probably not going to change the team vibe through sheer strength of will, dire warnings and personal experience. You can't make your teammates see the light; they have to see it for themselves, and they may not see it until they've been used and discarded by the narcissistic teammate.

It may take years for this worm to turn until the majority of your colleagues see what has been plain as day, right in front of all of you. Then you can say: "I told you so." Just try not to be too grandiose and self-referential about it.


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