Coaching mit systemischer Transaktionsanalyse

In „Narcissism in Coaching“ lernen Sie Grundlegendes über das Coaching von Narzissmus und deren Charakteristika.

Narcissism in Coaching


This short paper will focus on some aspects of coaching managers with narcissistic patterns, analysed in the context of leadership and power. This is not a trivial task because narcissistic peronalities offer relationship patterns that are not easy to connect to and to work with. So, after taking a view on the phenomenon of narcissism, we will have a look at the contact phase of coaching when the relationship is built, on the middle phase, when the actual work is done and on the closing phase, when the coaching relationship ends. We will particularly focus on the concept of „expanded self“ (Petermann, 1988). 

The phenomenon of narcissism in the organizational world

In management positions we often find people who show significant signs of narcissism. A leadership role is typically predestined “to overcompensate narcissistic deficits by living them as well as they function as a projective focus for dependence and idealization needs. “ (Steyrer, 1995, p. 99). Maybe narcissistic persons are somehow rather apt at management positions because managers are often expected to show charisma, to be tough, to create followers. These expectations place personalities fulfilling these criteria in management positions, but they exhibit personality styles linked with severe risks for co-working people and the company. 

In DSM V, narcissism is described:

A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifested by:

1. Impairments in self functioning (a or b):

a. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.

b. Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.


2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):

a. Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effect on others.

b. Intimacy: Relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little genuine interest in others‘ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain.

B. Pathological personality traits in the following domain:

  1. 1.Antagonism, characterized by:

a. Grandiosity: Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert; self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is better than others; condescending toward others.

b. Attention seeking: Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking.

If these personality straits are shown consistently without being explainable by other reasons (drugs, brain damages …), the clinical definition for narcissism is fulfilled. 

That means that aspects of identity, self-direction, empathy, intimacy should be analysed. In addition, grandiosity and attention seeking are important characteristics that clearly point to narcissistic personalities. But narcissism is not a clear-cut category with one being either “in” or “out”, it is a pattern (Mohr, 2012) within a continuum. Not everyone having narcissistic tendencies is a clinical case. Often, personalities are within the „normal“ range but at the same time exhibit a certain tendency to focus the world on one´s own self. In common language, being a narcissist means being someone with an overinflated self or an extraordinary self-centeredness. But everyone can be wounded in one´s sense of self. That means that a “normal” amount of narcissism is consistent with an average degree of vulnerability.

These clients can be met in coaching. There are several definitions for “coaching”, I prefer the following: Coaching describes „a professional relationship in which a coach works with a client to achieve certain goals of the client in terms of personal and professional competencies“ (Mohr, 2008). Some say that one cannot coach narcissistic people because they are not really able to build the necessary relationship and are basically not interested in being coached. At the same time, they and their social environment are very much in need of coaching and thus they sometimes become coaching clients. 

Gordon Hewitt has described the phases of coaching. 


The initial phase in coaching – the contact phase

Regularly, narcissists don´t begin a coaching process without certain preconditions. They believe they have superior capabilities in dealing with tasks and relationship; often, feedback does not reach them. Mistakes are seen but attributed to other people or the situation. Less severe cases of narcissistic patterns are sometimes seen in coaching, usually because of the client experiencing a lot of pressure applied by the company and in case the narcissistic manager thinks that coaching could have practical benefits for own interests or he expects to improve his skills in manipulating others. 

An example was Paul. He came to me after being fired from a very well-paid job in a bank. As a package for his restart, the bank had given him a course at a famous business school, which took a 360 degree feedback from his old colleagues and business partners. The result was a big surprise for him because no one reported having an efficient relationship with him. He himself had experienced his work and his contacts as „super“ and with „no problems“.  This irritation brought him into coaching. His aim was to change the impression others had. 

Narcissistic phenomena have to be seen more as a relationship pattern than an isolated narcissistic behaviour exhibited by a person. For narcissists, others solely exist to complement their life and fulfil their needs. Other persons are not seen as separate but more or less as a monitored part of the narcissists own self or as an object. Spoken in TA-language, there is a mixture of the “charming manipulator” (Stewart & Joines, 1970), „be strong“-driver (Kahler, 1977), Parent-guided-Symbiosis and certain other aspects. Narcissistic people are not always „loud and proud“, there are other, softer types of caring narcissists who tend to manipulate others by offering them symbiotic shelter.  

First, the coach has to analyse own narcissistic tendencies. Knowing about one´s own tendencies in this area means the coach will be more careful and at the same time empathic with the client. If a coach comes to the conclusion that he is totally devoid of narcissistic traits, he should not work with these clients because that means he has not reflected his narcissistic sides or his psyche is too far removed from narcissist clients. Also, the coach should be aware of systemic effects of narcissistic patterns in organizations. Often, narcissistic relationships cause expenses for organizations. Similar to the psychopathic personality disorder, the costs can be immense. In narcissistic relationships the costs are caused by the narcissist selecting certain people for the teams and areas of influence that he controls. This does not imply obvious evilness like in psychopathic relationships with their direct exploitation of others and the companies´ resources. Narcissist encounters are characterised most notably by temptation. Stewart and Joines (1970) describe the charming manipulator, a trait that narcissist people practice consistently and very well. Narcissistic people try to create followers and successful ones do find them. By a subtle selection process, those employees stay with a leader that favours this kind of relationship. Others leave this environment because it seems strange to them. 

Severe cases of narcissism are real challenges. A lot of the relationship building consists of tactics, playing, surprising the other. Here, conventional humanistic coaching techniques originating in the non-directive tradition are not first choice. They do not fulfil the excessive hunger for stimulation (Berne, 1966) narcissistic managers have. 

During most of the coaching process, the relationship is far from being stable and continuous. Its high amount of stimulation makes it seem more like a roller-coaster ride. In any intervention, potency is an important aspect. Intervention can include intense confrontation (Berne, 1966) in the form of several-side-interventions and in making judgements like „I can see you think you are a very smart person, but in this situation you reacted stupidly. I wonder why. “ In the context of this relationship, this intervention defines the coach as being on a higher level than the client because he reserves his right to interpret and value. Narcissists need counterparts whom they view as strong partners; otherwise they do not feel safe. 

Opportunities arise during the coaching process when the client “becomes soft” and shows real emotions. 

Narcissist managers very much influence all three corners of the organizational relationship. „The psychic problem of self-regulation, as the narcissism theories consider, becomes particularly vibrant in the context of leading (charisma), because the enactment of a leadership role demands phenomena like power and dominance.“ (Steyrer, 1995, S. 12; quoted by Schmidt-Lellek, 2004).



In Organizational Transactional Analysis, we have to focus on the system as the client. A specific organizational system can accurately be described by ten dynamics in four fields: 

  • Attention, roles and relationships in the field of system structure, 
  • communication, problem-solving and success in the field of processes, 
  • equilibriums and recursivity (same principles) in the field of balances and 
  • inside and outside pulsation in the field of boundaries (Mohr, 2006). 

Narcissistic patterns can particularly influence attention. It is then solely focussed on the temptation of the charismatic person, not balanced between tasks and people. In addition, relationships, communication and problem-solving are biased by the pattern. Success is defined on a covert level: the specific success of the narcissistic managers´ personality in contrast to a success of the whole system in terms of business and job satisfaction of all employees. 

Case example: In a company, the contract for a workshop was closed with its CEO. He was a very intelligent man, but used to dominate every situation. He had learned to be kind in the beginning of a conversation. After some time, he would become rigid and couldn´t suppress his impulses if something did not go the way he wanted. In a training course dealing with good communication and appreciation he himself had arranged for the company, he exhibited that pattern. After a nice beginning and two additional hours, in his opinion a participant reacted too slowly. The manager virtually exploded and told the participant, who was his employee, that he displayed an absolutely ineffective behaviour which could not be tolerated in the company. In this one moment, the whole training course and its content had failed; good communication and appreciation were null and void. In addition, the trainer´s effectiveness was diminished and somehow the whole training course seemed at an end. 

There were two interventions: His sub-optimal behaviour was explained to him in private and he was given space at the beginning of the next training unit for an input of his own in terms of the training topic. That had to be prepared with him in a very precise way to exclude contra-productive aspects. The main pattern was not so much a content issue; it was a process issue for the narcissist. He just had to be put center stage in the beginning. The second training course went well. Participants carefully mentioned a change to a more positive climate, but the real reason was that the managers’ narcissistic pattern had now been built in in a constructive way. 

Middle phase – content and consolidation

The most important diagnostic instrument is the coach. In the middle phase, the temptations and expansion of the self are very relevant. In his coaching model, Hewitt describes that in this stage working on „conflict“ and „consolidation“ are the topics. Other narcissists challenge our own narcissism. 

Narcissistic power abuse means „Either you are as I want you to be, or you stop existing“ (Steyrer, 1995, p. 313; Schmidt-Lellek, 1995). We can see it as self- protection because in the inner world of the narcissistic there only exist the two categories of „superman” and “ass“. Coaching should teach the narcissistic manager to get used to o.k.-o.k.-relationships and respect boundaries of their own and others.  

A very famous German manager in the automotive industry was known for his rude reactions to his employees if they did or said he did not agree with. His phrase „I don´t want to see him here anymore“, which he used frequently, was famous within the company. So, just one presentation by project manager could lead to termination of his employment. This kind of behaviour is not at all unusual. 

Now we come to a core aspect of the narcissistic pattern relationship, the “expanded self”. This pattern has to be and it can be changed during a longer coaching relationship. 

Petermann (1988) described the „expanded self“, which is a fundamental attitude towards the environment and also part of our culture. Consciously, other persons are regarded as external to ones own self, but unconsciously as really being part of the own self. This is an attempt to protect one’s own self. 

Space is a very important aspect of psychic relationships (Rossi, 2012).

Cathy was an example for the felt-space-aspect of the expanded self. She always entered a room with the attitude „Here I come, I need the space, you others have to comply”. She was used to all attention being on her. 

Now we will look at some practical questions to coach the expanded self.


First, practical question: From which reactions of my own can I conclude that I am „located“ within the expanded self of the other? 

  1. My self-esteem is decreasing.
  2. I loose spontaneity.
  3. My neurotic potential is increasing.
  4. I feel diffuse in my self-perception.
  5. I become insensitive to the other persons overbearing attitude.
  6. I only operate.
  7. I feel influenced without being able to influence others.
  8. I act differently than at other times, act diffusely, with effort. 

(Petermann, 1988, transl. GM) 

„The expanded self turns out to be a special, divided form of bonding: It is an expansion of the self in a way that on a conscious level the world – particularly others – is experienced outside of the own self, but unconsciously viewed as a part of the self. “ (Petermann, 1988, p. 32, transl. GM). An easily detectable sign of this mind-set in its softened version is a conversation started by one person and then immediately taken over by the other person who then continues by relating own experiences.

A lot depends on resources someone can develop in later life. 

Second question: How can I realize the other person is constructing an expanded self with me? 

  1. 1.The other person exhibits an idealised self-portrait. Breaking points are missing.
  2. 2.The other person reacts aggressively when I refuse his definition about me.
  3. 3.The other person rewards me whenever I am willing to mirror his idealized self-picture.

Third question: How can I recognize in my own attitude and behaviour that I am constructing an expanded self with someone else?

  1. 1.My tendency to send is significant whereas my motivation and ability to receive and listen is less present.
  2. 2.My intention is to influence.
  3. 3.My feeling of myself is one of expansion, brilliance and ingenuity.
  4. 4.Doing that, I loose stability.
  5. 5.I avoid being surprised or emotionally touched by others. Even where I treat others badly, am guilty or wrong, I artfully avoid feeling shame or guilt. 
  6. 6.After these encounters I feel empty, exhausted und lonely, particularly when I am not in accord with my ideal self. 

(Petermann, 1988, transl. GM) 

Cathy first reacted aggressively when confronted with a definite schedule for the coaching sessions. Then she sat there behaving as if she were not there and after another ten minutes she reacted as if nothing had happened.  

The closing phase – conclusion

Narcissistic behaviour does not include thinking about how to shape good relationships or appropriate rituals at the end of a professional relationship. Relationships are somehow kept non-binding or finished with a kind of divorce. From the start, the coach has to shape an open relationship. One possible intervention by the coach is to define every step of working together successfully. In addition, open questions and areas to be improved should be discussed. A narcissist pushed into an intense relationship over long periods will fell threatened. From the start, the possibility of a sudden end to the coaching process has to be discussed as a core issue by asking, for example, how the client normally shapes relationships, how they end, what criteria are used for continuing and for finishing. Sometimes, to stabilize their psyche, clients interrupt relationships and start again after some time. The coach should not punish that but be open and invite connecting. Often, a planned end is possible. In that case, an important message at the end should be conveyed: It is possible to ask for support if it is needed. “Now you know that coaching is beneficial and a good support. Don´t be stupid, keep that in mind!” Coaching is not a deep, healing therapy. But it can help managers with narcissistic patterns, for their own benefit and for the benefit of the people working with them. 


One reason for the economic crisis that began in 2009 is the predominance of a system of managers and leaders with problematic patterns like narcissism (Mohr, 2009; Mohr, 2015). So, it seems we need new elite. I can positively hear the uproar caused by my using the term “elite”. Vilfredo Pareto scientifically researched and wrote about the development of elites. He focussed on the change of elites and saw “history as graveyard of elites”. The new economic and business elite need preparation, because it has to be an elite of responsiveness, as Huber (2013) explained. This includes training and coaching to help them avoid narcissistic patterns. 


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