How to mentor a narcissist: Six strategies for working with difficult mentees

Editor’s note: Surprisingly few studies have looked at how personality characteristics and disorders affect mentoring relationships. This is unfortunate, given how influential a young person’s personality can be in shaping interactions and outcomes (Turban & Lee, 2007).   In fact, a recently highlighted study, showed that relationships involving mentees with higher narcissism were shorter in duration than were mentorships involving mentees lower narcissism.  Likewise, mentees scoring higher in narcissism reported less support and more negative mentoring experiences. In this piece, which appeared inHarvard Business Review, Professors W. Brad Johnson and David Smith make distinctions among types of narcissists and give pointers for dealing with narcissistic and other difficult mentees.

 W. Brad Johnson & David G. Smith , Harvard Business Review, SEPTEMBER 19, 2017 (excerpted)

 “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 … 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.

So what’s a mentor to do? Is it worth the time and effort? …When (not if) you find yourself mentoring a narcissist, here are a few strategies for helping the mentee better understand and modify their self-sabotaging behavior at work:

  • First, work on your empathy. Try to check any dislike of your mentee at the door. Remember, chances are your narcissistic mentee is a wounded child at heart. All the bravado and arrogance amount to little more than a front for poor self-esteem and a real fear that they are worthless at the core. Try looking beyond the inflated self-assessments and demands for special recognition and catching a glimpse of the fragile house of cards that is the narcissist’s ego. This might just stir your empathy for an interpersonally unpleasant mentee.
  • Listen and discern. In building empathy, excellent mentors listen for the narcissist’s vision of who they should be. It is important to understanding how and why the narcissist feels unworthy at their core. Unlocking this hidden shame may allow the mentor to build the mentee’s self-awareness while helping them to realize their vision.
  • Begin with mirroring. Here is a paradox: Narcissistic behavior often provokes others to respond with criticism and put-downs designed to put the narcissist in their place. In effect, the narcissist generates the very behavior they fear in others. Rather than fall into this pattern with your mentee, work hard at starting with affirmation, understanding, and acceptance. Referred to as mirroring, wise mentors are careful to reflect a positive appraisal of the mentee and their basic worth early on (We’re really lucky to have you here. It must be hard for you when others don’t seem to appreciate your contributions). For instance, you might initially frame arrogance and entitlement as unusual self-confidence. By mirroring back unconditional respect and acceptance of the narcissist, you might just lower defenses, thereby opening the door to some dialog and self-awareness.
  • Use Socratic questions to build insight. Rather than direct confronting a mentee’s narcissistic behavior, try dispassionate Socratic questioning. If they complain that other people don’t respect them, you can ask something like, “I wonder why so many people have that reaction to you?” You can also be more specific. You might say, “I’ve observed that some people seem to think you are arrogant. Can you think of any reasons why people might see you that way?” or “Help me understand what was going through your mind when so-and-so questioned your expertise.” Such gentle but persistent queries are often a best bet when it comes to lowering defensiveness and setting the stage for personal insight and change.
  • In conflict, lead with how you feel. Psychologist Bernardo Tirado reflects that when difficult conversations and confrontations are necessary with a narcissist, always lead off with how your mentee made you feel. Because the narcissist lacks empathy, such feeling-oriented disclosures can get the conversation away from who is to blame and refocused on the real problem: the mentee’s impact on other people.
  • Take care of yourself. Mentoring a narcissist won’t be easy. Caring and empathic by nature, even the best mentors may feel appalled by the vivid anger and intense dislike a narcissistic mentee can engender. Some mentors suffer guilt and self-recrimination when fleeting but deeply satisfying fantasies of berating or belittling a narcissist occur. Remember that no amount of validation and admiration may truly be enough for the narcissist. To avoid burnout, set limits on the frequency of engagement with a narcissistic mentee and the number of narcissists you are willing to mentor at one time. And don’t forget to make time for good self-care, including consulting with another seasoned mentor to maintain your equilibrium.”

W. Brad Johnson, PhD, is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy, and a Faculty Associate at Johns Hopkins University. He is the co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women as well as other books about mentoring.

David G. Smith, PhD, is a professor of sociology in the Department of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College. He is the co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. His research focuses on gender, work, and family issues including dual career families, military families, women in the military, and retention of women.