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? Although prickly, unappreciative, and self-absorbed, a narcissistic employee might just possess subject matter expertise, technical skill, or strategic vision critical to an organization’s success. And remember, not all narcissists are created equal. Only a few are truly maniacal egotists. And there are plenty of well-intentioned leaders and organizational game-changers who occupy some location on the narcissism spectrum. And anyway, shouldn’t everyone you hire get a fair shot, including the opportunity for early career-enhancing relationships?
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: