Herb Stevenson
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Coaching the Narcissistic Personality Style

Herb Stevenson, CEO
June 5, 2013

Successful leaders are often referred to as visionary. This capacity is often embedded in narcissistic personalty traits. How these traits are employed determine whether there is productive or unproductive leadership and therefore whether there is a healthy, sustainable work environment (or not). As executive coaches, running into narcissistic clients is common and clearly can be quite challenging. The goal of this article is to provide a general discussion of narcissism and then provide some coaching techniques that might be useful.

Basic Definition

Narcissism is a term that originated with Narcissus in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. Currently it is used to describe a person characterized by egotism, vanity, pride, or selfishness. Except in the sense of primary narcissism or healthy self-love, narcissism is usually considered a problem in a person or group's relationships with self and others.

Healthy Narcissism (Or Not)

Over the last several years, there has been a wide range of articles written on narcissism. More recently, there has been a migration into leadership. Due to the number of leaders with narcissistic traits, Trevor Bentley believes "these tendencies may well be the reasons that they have risen to the positions at the top of their organizations; that is, healthy narcissism may be a prerequisite of life at the top. However, when narcissistic tendencies migrate from being healthy to unhealthy, they can reap a harvest of discontent and animosity that are not supportive of either individual or organizational growth."1

Interestingly, Michael Maccoby, uses "the contrast of productive versus unproductive to describe healthier versus less developed or even disturbed personalities. A productive person is active and enthusiastic- someone who bounces back from failure and perseveres to achieve a reasoned purpose. In contrast, unproductive people are less free and therefore reactive rather than active, without a clear purpose and driven by addictive needs that make them fearful and dependent."2

Regardless of how we frame the polarity of narcissism, Elinor Greenberg provides insights into the differences. She notes:

"Healthy narcissism is a sense of positive regard that is based on a realistic understanding and acceptance of one’s own strength and weaknesses. Because healthy narcissism is based on realistic self-knowledge, it is relatively impervious to minor slights and failures, it is stable over time, and it is not overly dependent on what others think.

Defensive or pathological narcissism involves the use of a facade of arrogance or superiority to cover up and compensate for an underlying sense of being worthless and inadequate. Thus in pathological narcissism, what appears to be high self-esteem is really a shallow illusion that is easily disrupted when others do not validate the narcissist’s sense of self-importance. When the narcissist’s facade of self-importance is publicly disrupted, he or she feels incredible shame and drops into a self-hating depression. To avoid this the narcissist usually tries to blame someone else and then angrily attacks the other person’s sense of self worth."3

When we apply the differences between healthy and unhealthy narcissism to organizations, we begin to realize that it is two sides of the same coin. Narcissists want to change the world to fit their view of how things should be, and they have little or no sense of guilt to constrain them from radical, risky ventures that can be creative or destructive at either a high or low level of moral reasoning.4 Hence, healthy narcissists can be extremely visionary. Because of their reality based self awareness, their vision is based on how to shift the organization to something more, new, better than exists now. However, without a strong sense of self awareness and application to reality, the narcissism can become destructive and dangerous to the organization.

For example, some years ago I worked with a client that was considered a living legend at an investment bank. When the organization had started-up, he had single handedly created massive profits on various investments that resulted in the rapid growth of the company. Over the course of the years, the client had been passed-over for promotions because he could not live within the more structured risk management policies of the organization. He wanted to return to the good old days, when he could create various high risk and high paying returns; while forgetting that his failures were now exceeding his successes. When I was called in, he had moved from brilliant and confident to devious and blaming. This was evidenced by his statements that "if the managers would get out of the way, he could perform his magic". It was clear that he had moved into an unhealthy narcissism. As I worked with him, he realized that he would be required to change. Rather than do so, he fabricated a series of stories about me in an attempt to get me fired. As a result of his adeptness in understanding his peers and bosses, they proceeded to fire me until I pointed out several inconsistencies in his story. Furthermore, they saw similar inconsistencies that he had told about other people in the organization. Rather than fire the client, I suggested having a conversation about the findings. Upon being confronted, the client chose to not address the issues and resigned. He was unable to face a reality different than the one fabricated in his mind.

How Do You Know

When working at the senior or C-Suite, it is often difficult to determine on which side of narcissism that the client resides. To run an organization, it requires a strong ego and an exceptional level of confidence. Doubt tends to undermine followership, so clear, direct, assertiveness is appreciated and required to lead. Nonetheless, Sandy Hotchkiss provides some insights in what happens when narcissism turns to the dark side5:

An Example

During a succession process to install new leadership, the transition was nearly complete. After three years of supporting the departing and the incoming executives, profits had tripled and for all involved purposes, the coaching was nearly complete. At an executive retreat, a significant shift occurred that resulted in the departing leader taking an extremely aggressive stance towards to the incoming executive. He personally attacked as if in a trance. The receiving executive took it for a while, then emphatically responded to the unprofessional behavior. At first, it appeared that it was a glitch that would be worked through as the team had been coached on how to constructively work through any form of disagreement. This was different. It got more personal as time progressed. As the coach, suddenly, I was blamed for failing to stop the berating executive. Furthermore, many of the facts drastically changed such that the perpetrating executive was now the victim.

As coach, I realized that I needed to determine if there was any possibility of influencing the outgoing executive. If not, then my ability to coach or impact the system would be minimized if not fully compromised. I communicated with all parties to assess the impact on each. The incoming executive was willing to address what happened so as to clear the air and move forward. The outgoing executive remained in a blame and shame process towards the incoming executive and to myself.

I approached the outgoing executive on several occasions. It was clear that discussing what happened in any form would result in being raged upon or by changing the subject. It was now an impossible topic to approach. As I pondered that therapeutic intervention would likely be needed, it became clear that my effectiveness for any suggestion would be considered inappropriate and result in further efforts to diminish me. I paused the coaching by stepping out of any direct contact with the outgoing executive and initiated coaching with the lead director. He became the surrogate coach to move the executives to a different position while allowing myself to be the target of offhanded comments. In time, the wound healed sufficiently as the lead director kept the succession process moving forward so that the outgoing executive did in fact leave the organization.

Clearly, from this example it can be seen that dealing with narcissism can be tricky and painful. I do not know anyone that is immune to the efforts to be embarrassed, shamed or blamed. Nonetheless, if we seek to coach at the executive levels and C-Suite, it will occur on occasion.

As result of some of my various experiences with narcissists, I’ve learned to support myself through the following practice: Instead of direct feedback when in the heat of the moment, I seek oblique engagements. For example, when I am accused of some behavior that I know to be an alteration of the facts, I politely ask for further clarification and a possible a clear example. The process of thinking about the question shifts from the narcissism to a more rational approach. In some cases, we move back to a reality based conversation. In other cases, it can escalate the narcissism leaving no doubt that at that moment, the session is done. For my own protection, I simply end it and walk out. After a reasonable period, I seek re-engagement. If the narcissistic response has cooled, the relationship can begin to be re-established. If not, then the engagement is likely over.

Another issue that I’ve embraced is that as the coach, it is not my job to fix the client. It is the client’s responsibility to stay engaged, be willing to co-create safe experiments for discovering more effective behavior and move toward greater leadership effectiveness. Some colleagues that come from the healing sciences (counseling and psychology) have disagreed with me. However, it is best to remember that those practices are for healing and should be treated by a licensed individual. Executive coaching is supporting the client to learn to be a more effective leader/executive.

A Tool

Trevor Bentley has created a tool that he uses with narcissists as a means to create conversation and engagement. Generally, it would be something that I would use under very specific conditions. (1) The client understands that their personality is problematic and therefore their effectiveness and/or job is at risk. (2) The board is aware of the problem and has specifically required behavioral changes if it is within the C-Suite. (3) There are clear boundaries of what will be considered acceptable behavior by and between the client and myself. (4) I am not diagnosing the client; rather, I am using the tool to create a clear field of conversation to lead toward effective leadership. Once these are agreed upon, then I am prepared to use the tool.

Generally, I like to agree that both of us would complete the assessment and then compare answers. Where there are differences, we would discuss our different perspectives. Once this has been done, I open the possibility that our differences could also be shared by others in the organization. If so, then we move towards how those perceptions will impact his or her ability to lead the organization. It is at this junction that possibilities begin to develop that can lead to a stronger move toward healthy narcissism. Occasionally, the client goes a step further and asks other to complete the assessment so that real feedback can be received.

A critical issue of dealing with narcissism is that it is imperative that you, as the coach, find a way to engage the person and not their narcissism. The person (verses the narcissism) is more consciously aware and is able to at least minimally stay engaged. The narcissism will not be able to take a look at behavior without incurring internal pain. As you distinguish the difference between the person and the narcissism, it becomes clear whether or not you can coach the person or need to pass and move on.


Assessment of Self Awareness
and Internal Support

Circle the number that most reflects your personality style.

Supportive Range Unsupportive
Although emotionally vulnerable to negative assessments and feelings of others, they can hurdle these issues with style and grace. 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 3 4 React to criticism with feelings of rage, stress, or humiliation (even if not expressed).
Shrewd in dealing with other, utilizing the strengths and advantages of others to achieve their own goals. 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 3 4 Interpersonally exploitive, taking advantage of others to achieve their own ends.
Can energetically sell themselves, their ideas and their projects. 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 3 4 Grandiose sense of self importance.
Tend to be able competitors who love getting to the top and enjoy staying there. 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 3 4 Believe their problems are unique and understood only by other special people.
Can visualize themselves as the best or most accomplished in their field. 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 3 4 Preoccupied by fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love.
They believe in themselves, their abilities , and their uniqueness, but do not demand special treatment or privileges. 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 3 4 Have a sense of entitlement and unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment.
Accept accomplishments, praise, and admiration gracefully and with self-possession. 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 3 4 Require constant attention and admiration.
Possess a keen awareness of their thoughts and feelings, and have some awareness of those of others. 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 3 4 Lack of empathy; unable to recognize and experience how others feel.
Expect others to treat them well at all times. 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 3 4 Preoccupied with feelings of envy.

Adapted from Trevor J. Bentley, (2005) Working with Narcissism in Organizations., Gestalt Review, 9 (1) 38-52, Original L. Sperry, (1995) Handbook of Diagnosis and Treatment of DSM IV Personality Disorders. Brunner/Mazel.


Footnotes

1Trevor J. Bentley, (2005) Working with Narcissism in Organizations., Gestalt Review, 9 (1) 39.

2(Maccoby, Michael (2012-04-25). Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails (Kindle Locations 131-132). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. )

3 Elinor Greenberg, The Narcissistic Tightrope Walk: Using Gestalt Therapy Field Theory to Stabilize the Narcissistic Client, Gestalt Review, 9 (1): 58-68, 2005

4Maccoby, Michael (2012-04-25). Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails (Kindle Locations 140-142). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

5Sandy Hotchkiss, (2002) Why is it always about you? Saving Yourself from the Narcissists in your life. New York: Free Press.

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