Narcissistic rage in training evaluations: protect your team

We’ve all had upset customers or received feedback tinged by emotions. But sometimes we encounter a ‘rant’ evaluation or review that seems out of proportion. This style of feedback is lengthy and hostile. It often presents long lists of ‘evidence’ that a specific staff member is in the wrong. Its tone is outraged and retaliatory. This is not normal feedback – and my argument is that it should therefore be handled with care.  

Excessive anger such as that expressed in a ‘rant’ can be sign of narcissistic rage. This is intense form of anger. It is triggered when someone with narcissistic personality disorder experiences a situation that shatters their illusions of entitlement and superiority. For example, fellow participants in a course arguing with the narcissist or a trainer taking all participants’ needs into account when setting break times.  

When this happens, the narcissist is flooded with feelings of inadequacy, shame and vulnerability – which they don’t know how to regulate. The result is simmering rage. And the ideal time to express this rage is when the online feedback form arrives. Signs that feedback is being written by an individual in the grip of narcissistic rage include: 

  • The tone of a complaint being out-of-proportion to the issue 
  • A lengthy, hostile review standing out as the only negative evaluation received for the session 
  • The writer referring to the facilitator by their job title rather than name. For example ‘The trainer…’ 
  • Excessive use of generalisations, such as ‘Everybody agreed that the whole course was a waste of time’ 
  • Name-calling or insults aimed at the facilitator 
  • Personal comments about the trainer’s weight, appearance or clothing 

Anyone who has been the target of this type of feedback knows how upsetting it can be. Trainers often have no recourse when ranting reviews are posted about them. They are being named and shamed. They are being given no right of response. No dispute resolution process is being used. And this places frontline team members at risk of psychological harm.  

So what can HR and training managers do to reduce this risk? 

Include trainer feedback as part of your standard evaluation process 

It makes sense to gather feedback from your trainers on every session they run. Obviously, this allows you to track the logistical problems that can impact learner experiences.  It also enables trainers to alert you to any group dynamic or behavioural issues which emerge in their groups.  

Document your issue-management process 

Work with your training team to develop a transparent and fair response process. Consider including the following elements.  

  • A clearly defined procedure for comparing the perceptions of the complainant with those of other participants in the session 
  • Steps for separating key issues from inappropriate or attacking statements 
  • Guidelines for deciding when issues require follow up with the trainer 
  • Steps for debriefing and supporting trainers when they have been publicly shamed 

Redesign your participant evaluation form 

Good evaluation forms are structured in ways that elicit constructive, behavioural feedback. Does your evaluation form include the following elements? 

  • Guidelines on feedback etiquette. For example, ‘Business Name values respectful communication. Uncivil or attacking statements will not be accepted as feedback. Please help us improve by framing your feedback constructively and focusing on behaviours we can change.’ 
  • Word limits on text fields. This is a great way to ensure writers focus on core issues, rather than using your evaluation form to vent their rage 
  • Information about your processes for following up complaints and compliments 
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Develop templates for responding to hostile or unreasonable feedback 

Involve your facilitators in wording these. This is a great way to demonstrate your commitment to supporting your team when managing complaints. For example, your templates might include a statement such as “Mike is an experienced facilitator who consistently receives positive reviews.” You might also put negative feedback in context using the sentence “I have followed up on the issues you have raised, both with other group members and with the trainer. Their feedback has been….” 

Debrief trainers who have been exposed to narcissistic rage 

Even experienced facilitators can take highly critical comments to heart. Training managers can play an important role in helping them recover from narcissistic attacks. Simple steps you can take include: 

  • Expressing empathy and enquiring about how a participant’s feedback has impacted them 
  • Normalising the experience and explaining that the feedback seems to be driven by strong emotions 
  • Explicitly acknowledging the ratio of positive to negative feedback the trainer has received 
  • Explaining the complaint management process 
  • Engaging in a dialogue about follow up action 

Remember that feedback should always be a constructive process. Well designed evaluation processes support both your team and your customers. Small changes to your system can make a huge difference to the learning of your team.  

About the author of this article: 

Eleanor is a master trainer and facilitator. She specialises in positive psychology, helping leaders and HR practitioners build flourishing organisations. She is known as a creative, dynamic facilitator with a flair for helping ‘positive deviants’ excel at work. Eleanor is the author of the Positive Psychology Toolkit for HR and L&D practitioners. She runs a range of practitioner retreats and workshops for trainers and facilitators.