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6 Strategies for Managing an Uncooperative Narcissist

4. Steer clear of side alliances.

Key points

  • People high in narcissism can make your life difficult with their antagonistic personality and interpersonal style.
  • New research based on the influential theory of Karen Horney shows how anxiety can drive the antagonistic narcissist.
  • 6 key strategies can turn narcissists from their "moving against" personal style to one that fosters "moving toward."

When you’ve got a group project to finish, each member of the group ideally contributes in a fair and equitable manner. If you’re the leader of the group, your hope is that they allow you to “lead,” taking on the tasks you’ve assigned them without complaining. However, some people refuse to allow themselves to be led. They insist on derailing your efforts during group meetings and, worse, try to enlist other group members in joining them when they try to sabotage you.

As you contemplate a strategy to rein in this unruly individual, it strikes you that maybe you should just have them removed entirely. Their disruptions are preventing you from accomplishing your goal, and, without them, it will be much easier to move forward. However, from a political standpoint, such a move would be highly problematic. You’ll look petulant and vindictive, which obviously would be counterproductive. What are better options?

Why Narcissists Don’t Like to Be Managed

Before turning to your possible strategies, it’s helpful to understand why someone would be so attention-grabbing in this kind of group setting. Although you can’t diagnose people without a proper assessment, the chances are that someone who needs so much coddling has at least some narcissistic tendencies.

You don’t even necessarily need to get into diagnostic issues, however. Another way to conceptualize people who make your life difficult by virtue of their antagonistic tendencies comes from the interpersonal theory of the German psychoanalyst Karen Horney. University of Utah’s Steven Carlson and colleagues (2022), revive this classic approach to personality with its potential to provide insights into the motives of people who don’t like to be managed.

Horney, who established her own branch of psychoanalysis, emphasized the interpersonal aspects of personality. Her work had considerable influence on the training of psychoanalysts. Indeed, her contributions even reached the popular market, such as her book, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time. However, the theory did not produce “established, theory-driven interpersonal approaches to construct validation and conceptual integration” (p. 650), limiting its potential to become a major force in personality psychology. Even so, many of its essential concepts, as the authors note, remain relevant to what is now known as contemporary integrative interpersonal theory (CIIT), an approach that characterizes the ways individuals think about and relate to each other as well as how they internalize their interpersonal relationships.

Horney’s theory could provide a new and valued perspective on narcissism even though her work isn’t typically cited in this context. The theory proposes that individuals whose early lives were marked by neglect, criticism, and lack of warmth become adults whose lives are marked by “basic anxiety.” As a result, they can develop one of three interpersonal styles: moving toward people (submitting to them), moving away (detached), and moving against (aggressive). It is in this set of distinctions that you can gain an understanding of the difficult narcissist in your midst.

A New Test of Interpersonal Styles

Across two separate samples of participants drawn from undergraduate populations, the U. Utah researchers conducted a statistical analysis of the quality of a Horney-based personality test, the Horney-Coolidge Type Inventory (HCTI), by validating it against two other inventories based on different but related theoretical frameworks. The three domains of the HCTI (compliance, aggression, and detachment) were reflected, as predicted, in scores on the validational scales. People high in the aggressive style fit a pattern of “hostile dominance,” those in the detached style fit a “hostile-submissiveness” pattern, and compliant-style scores were associated with “warm-submissiveness.”

The HCTI showed limitations as a measurement instrument, and the samples were composed entirely of college students. However, the authors believe that they have demonstrated that Horney’s theory remains relevant today and is worthy of further research.

Indeed, in terms of understanding narcissism, the Carlson et al. work provides a new angle and offers several practical recommendations. In their words, hostile dominance is evident in “narcissistic rivalry,” which invariably produces “increasing interpersonal difficulty over time” (p. 657). By virtue of their hostility in relating to others, then, narcissists get as well as give. People don’t like them, react angrily to them, and thereby only exacerbate an interpersonal style deeply rooted in anxiety.

From Moving Against to Moving Toward

Based on the idea that their interpersonal style evolves from this very fundamental core of anxiety, might it be possible to shift their approach from uncooperative to cooperative? Might there be strengths that they can contribute to the group once you move past their aggressive stance? Some or all of these six strategies follow from this premise:

  1. Meet their reasonable requests. Because they are so hostile and aggressive, you might want to shut them down completely. Instead, show that you are fair and impartial by listening to them and then offering feedback that focuses on the good ideas they may actually have.
  2. Let them know who’s boss. Without showing hostile dominance yourself, which will only turn the heat up in the group, show calmly and quietly that you are the one in charge.
  3. Avoid getting dragged into a tug of war. When someone challenges your authority, it’s easy to engage in the kind of back and forth that involves your continued need to respond to them. You can reduce their clamoring for attention by not reinforcing it.
  4. Steer clear of side alliances. You may find that this person, frustrated by your lack of response to their behavior, starts to enlist others in the group to back them up by approaching them outside the context of the group. If this should happen, let the group know that any work should pass through you as the central clearinghouse.
  5. Remain optimistic. Some people who clamor for constant attention are engaging in a test of how others will respond. Show that you’re not the type of person who will become annoyed, or, worse, despondent, and demonstrate that you continue to expect the best out of everyone in the group.
  6. Continue to move forward. By adjusting your own emotions, you’ll be better able to keep things going with the other members who are trying to work toward productive solutions. This will also help the rest of the group avoid feeling demoralized or that they’re wasting their time.

Over time, if your work with this group continues, this measured approach may serve to tame the wilder side of the narcissist’s aggressive tendencies. They may not become your best friend, but they may become your ally.

To sum up, the idea that narcissistic individuals may have a maladaptive interpersonal style can help you gain greater insight into what seems like their self-aggrandizing and hostile behaviors. Easing the tension that their behavior causes will help to ease your own, allowing you to turn unpleasant interactions into ones that may help promote your own productivity and well-being.

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Carlson, S. E., Smith, T. W., Parkhurst, K. A., Tinajero, R., Grove, J. L., Goans, C., Hirai, M., & Ruiz, J. M. (2022). Moving toward, moving against, and moving away: An interpersonal approach to construct validation of the Horney–Coolidge Type Inventory. Journal of Personality Assessment, 104(5), 650–659.