In many of my articles, I like to “tee up” or tease a topic by posing it as a question – but in this case, it’s obvious what the answer is, so I won’t bother. Narcissists cannot cooperate with others – if you’ve dealt with one for any length of time, you’ll know this. You’ll relate to how exasperating it is to deal with them, where they cannot process facts/logic/reason, or collaborate and work with others like a mature adult.
A common example of this is working for a narcissistic boss, and you as a normal, reasonable person, try to cooperate with them on an adult level, and they just keep batting away perfectly reasonable proposals or suggestions, always belittling and dismissing you. It can feel like they’re almost irritated by your attempts to create harmony, cooperation and cordiality, like they almost prefer to be in conflict with you or upsetting you in some way. What’s going on here?
The main reason for this inability for narcissists to cooperate with others is their broken and fragile sense of self, which means they must always be superior to and “on top of” others at all times. This means they cannot embody or manifest any qualities such as cooperation and collaboration which would require them to act on a equal, mature, level footing with others psychologically.
Yes, they can sometimes appear to be cooperative for a short length of time, or when it suits them. We’ll cover this further below. But most of the time, especially when interactions/relationships have turned confrontational, their superiority complex means they cannot and will not ever cooperate with you like a mature adult.
Let’s look more into the narcissistic personality to explain why.
Why Narcissists Struggle To Cooperate With Others
Despite the outer “bluster” and seeming confidence of many narcissists, they are in fact extremely fragile and broken individuals, with a personality that is built on intense childhood trauma and shame. Therefore, when it’s full blown narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), you’re dealing with a mindset that’s very different to that of a normal person.
We cover more on how the narcissistic personality “shell” identity is created in another article, but the bottom line on this is that their real self died many years ago when they were in infancy, and they present to the world a grandiose, false shell self that needs constant reinforcement or “supply” to keep itself afloat.
A couple of the 9 DSM traits of full blown NPD that characterize this “shell self” are a grandiose sense of self importance, and a feeling of being “unique” or “special. Both of these traits in particular combine to mean narcissists have a massive superiority complex, believing themselves to be superior to others in “god” like way.
This means that narcissists cannot ever truly do “equal” with others. They cannot interact on an equal, level footing, as two mature adults would. They must feel “above”, “important”, “superior”, “different” and “special”, when compared to others. They cannot stand to be considered “just another person”, like anyone else.
Now hopefully, the answer becomes clear as to why narcissists cannot ever cooperate with others. Cooperation over a long period of time requires to adults to interact on a level, equal basis, which is something the narcissistic personality is literally incapable of doing.
Now you hopefully understand better the constant “batting away” of reasonable suggestions, of attempts to compromise. The constant “points scoring” and “one-upmanship” they engage in. The inability to work as a team (if you set up a business with them as duo, expect a disaster in most cases, or to just be used and discarded). Their inability to accept reasonable suggestions or proposals, even to their OWN detriment sometimes. The seeming disintegration of any talks/negotiations they engage in, despite you going in offering a perfectly reasonable deal (narcissists are nightmares to divorce for this reason).
It comes down to their compulsive need to feel “above” others, to feel like they are the ones “winning” and in control at all times. To compromise and cooperate means to give this false, grandiose sense of self up, which would trigger them big time. They cannot and will not do this.
The Limited Circumstances In Which A Narcissist Can Appear To Cooperate
Let’s add a caveat to the very broad level point above. That’s all very well, one might say, but narcissists still work on, and sometimes even lead, teams. Some of them have their own businesses. Some have been married for years, despite their personality disorder. Surely all of these scenarios would be impossible without some cooperation or compromise?
It is true that a narcissists can sometimes appear to cooperate with others to a certain extent, in a self serving way. Here are some examples of this:
- As long as they’re being fed their “supply” and their fragile sense of self is being kept afloat by their environment. If they’re getting fed enough supply, these people can even be pleasant and fun to be around sometimes. I had a narcissist friend like this for many years, and we did cooperate at times on stuff. As soon as my own growth became incompatible with his lifestyle, that cooperation ended however.
- They can temporarily cooperate in a self serving sense to avoid negative consequences (avoid being caught out in some way with wrongdoing, lying etc).
- Can “cooperate” as long as the other party is fawning, supplicating to them, in a “worship” dynamic (acting like a good “humble little slave” like the narcissist wants).
- In business partnerships, a narcissist will re-frame (in their mind at least) “co-operation” to be you supplying most/all of the funding, doing all the boring paperwork and other chores they’d rather not do, while they stick to easy stuff like chatting to customers all day/night, doing media, or anything else that allows them to draw attention/adulation from others. Usually though, will be very unbalanced and the narcissist will rarely pull their true weight.
- Narcissists will act all nice again and “cooperate” when “hoovering” another person, trying to draw them back in after a breakup and get them to give them “another chance”. Never lasts though.
- Alternatively, a narcissist can surround themselves only with weak, fawning, submissive types who have learned never to even ask for cooperation/compromise, and always just go along with whatever the narcissist wants, without question. In which case, cooperation is never even necessary.
- Alternatively, you may not interact with a narcissist for long enough (in brief deals/transactions) to see their uncooperative, obnoxious side come out. If it’s a mutually beneficial exchange that’s over quickly, you may not know any the wiser.
Perhaps another way of putting many of these points is there are certain co-dependent dynamics which MAY allow the fostering of a certain kind of “cooperation” with a narcissist, as long as the other person is supplicating and subservient to, the narcissist, continuing to feed them “supply”, and never really pushing into their defenses, taking all the burdens and frustrations of the inequality of the relationship onto themselves and never complaining (co-dependent/people pleaser dynamic).
However, at some point, the narcissist’s inherent personality problems must always come to the surface when dealing with them for any length of time, and their narcissistic defenses are pushed into. Anyone even asserting their own boundaries or “pushing back” a little to demand some kind of concession/collaboration/cooperation, “meeting in the middle” like two mature adults, is going to trigger a narcissist, who must always feel on top of others at all times.
It’s when they are triggered or annoyed (even by you setting reasonable boundaries from your side) that this obnoxious, uncooperative side will come out. You’ll find interactions turn very confrontational, oppositional and toxic once this happens, because from then on it’s about them “winning” and nothing else.
Any compromise will be impossible, and we’ve covered in detail elsewhere how it’s impossible to return to a harmonious and cordial interaction once a narcissist has been triggered. Everything is re-framed negatively, and everything becomes a fight whether you like it or not. This is when you literally are wasting your time trying to get a narcissist to cooperate, and it’s best to simply save your energy and disengage.
Red Flags For Narcissism When Doing Deals/Negotiations
Let’s put together a quick checklist of narcissism “red flags” to look out for, to spot more quickly when you’re dealing with a personality style incapable of lasting co-operation and compromise.
Here are some toxic traits to watch out for when in business/negotiation/deal settings:
- When setting up businesses, a clear inequality in the way paperwork/contracts/agreements are drafted (narcissists will seek to offload all the boring work onto you and get away with as little as possible from their end). A sense that you’re “carrying” the business despite it being a supposed equal partnership (narcissists are parasitic in this way).
- A sense of everything going well only until they’re questioned/challenged/criticized in some way, when the atmosphere seems to turn. An extreme over-sensitivity and “prickleishness” to criticism, however, politely and fairly stated.
- A demeaning, insulting, arrogant or belittling tone in discussions.
- A constant sense of “one-upmanship” or points scoring.
- A growing sense of oppositional-defiant traits on their part, where their position always seems to be opposing yours.
- There will often be a sense of entitlement that comes through – feeling they deserve special treatment/concessions in any deal being made that others wouldn’t get.
- Any deals/suggestions/compromises you might put forward, that you’ve spent a lot of time, effort and sincerity drafting, and where you made every effort to make it fair to all parties, is just batted away with disdain by the narcissist.
- An increasing sense that the content of interactions (facts/logic/reason/information) is ceasing to matter, and it’s now more about power dynamics and them “winning” and being on top and “superior” (read our article on the context/content split – if context is all that matters, you’re dealing with a toxic person and need to disengage).
See our article on spotting a narcissist during deals/negotiations/discussions for more tips on what to look out for to spot toxic, uncooperative personality types like narcissists in the business/legal worlds.