Narcissists are the selfies of the work world, who think only of themselves. Everything they do is contrived to make themselves look good, no matter who they step over or harm on the way.
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was the hunter who fell in love with his own reflection. When he realised the reflection was not real, he fell into despair and died. Narcissism as a psychological condition became widely known after it was identified by Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis.
The line between a narcissistic boss and a transformational boss is a thin one. Both like to take risks and have grandiose visions. It’s no coincidence that many CEOs have narcissistic tendencies. However, the true narcissist boss is a toxic influence on a company. Narcissistic managers can also be found lower down in the company hierarchy than in the C suite. You may even be one yourself.
Are you here because you suspect your boss is a narcissist? Read on to learn how to deal with – and survive working under – a narcissistic boss.
1. Recognise the signs of a narcissistic boss
Unfortunately, there are many types of bad bosses out there, but the narcissistic boss is a breed apart. First, you need to recognise that they are a narcissist.
Narcissistic personality disorder is in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but it is rare. A systematic review of studies found the mean prevalence of narcissism to be 1.06%.
A healthy degree of narcissism is present in most people. But when self-absorption and self-interest affect everything a person does and have a harmful effect on other people, it’s likely that that person is a narcissist.
The narcissist is charming, charismatic and confident, all attributes that come over well when they are interviewed for a job. Once you’ve been in your role a while, you may find that these traits are interlaced with the following, which are all signs of narcissistic behaviour. The narcissistic boss:
- is selfish, self-admiring, self-obsessed, self-centred, self-absorbed and self-important (if you take a peek at their social media, you may find it’s full of selfies!)
- takes credit for others’ work
- blames others for their own failures
- insists they are right all the time
- lacks empathy and concern for others
- exaggerates their achievements (doctored CVs are not uncommon)
- is manipulative
- is impulsive
- never apologises
- takes risks
- is angry when challenged
- is preoccupied with success and power (only their own, not yours or the company’s)
- treats their employees inconsistently, sometimes resorting to bullying and coercion
- dislikes even the slightest criticism
- rarely listens
- dominates meetings
- gossips about you and gaslights you
Despite these alarming tendencies, at heart narcissists have low self-esteem, which explains why they project onto others their insecurities. This is worth remembering when you’re thinking of effective tactics to handle them. It may take you a while to recognise the signs of a narcissist boss, but you will need ways to deal with them.
2. Keep the peace
Narcissists have a short fuse. Challenge them or even mildly disagree, and they are likely to fly into a rage, shout at you and worse. It’s natural to want to defend yourself, but it’s best to avoid confrontation at all costs. You will feel worse if you’re bullied and belittled than if you keep quiet.
If you do need to disagree, frame the solution in a way that flatters the narcissist boss. Show how it will make them look good.
The narcissist boss also likes to create conflict where there is none and to blame others for it. Be aware of this and either prevent it or avoid fanning the flames. A narcissist boss may create drama unnecessarily so they can swoop in and act like the big hero.
3. Engage but don’t try to change their behaviour
If you decide to engage, be aware that even if you are clear about what you’re asking, it might not make any difference – so always keep a record.
Whatever you decide, don’t try and call them out on their behaviour with a view to changing it. Narcissists don’t see any problem with their behaviour, and they don’t want to change. Their lack of empathy means they just cannot see the other person’s point of view.
4. Go over their head
If you can, approach HR or your manager’s manager – but with evidence, otherwise it will backfire.
If you’re having a performance appraisal, ask if you can have it with your manager’s manager. Does your organisation operate 360-degree feedback? Think of tactful ways to bring up the issues and to offer constructive feedback. Frame this in terms of their effect on your work, the work of your team and on the company. Think of possible solutions.
Be careful, though. Narcissistic bosses are skilled at making themselves appear successful, and their superiors may not recognise the effects of their poor management, such as high staff turnover and poor morale. This is why you will need evidence, otherwise it will be perceived as attacking someone who is seemingly successful.
5. Listen and don’t interrupt
Narcissists love to talk about themselves, and they especially love the sound of their own voice. So, listen, don’t interrupt and wait until you’re given the opportunity to speak.
Their ideas may be ridiculous, but don’t say so. Repeat back what they’ve said and ask what you need to do. As Bradley Wesner noted in his research (PDF), ‘[Narcissists] often explain their point of view in loquacious detail while failing to recogni[s]e that other parties have anything to add to their perspectives’.
6. Appeal to their massive ego
Ask for their advice on how to handle a new project or how to write an important email, for example: ‘I know you write effective emails, so would you mind looking over this draft?’.
Narcissists thrive on flattery because they like to be admired. If you use flattery, preferably do it when you’re alone with them, otherwise your colleagues will be annoyed. If flattery seems too much, at least be neutral, diplomatic and even detached in your interactions.
7. Call them out (but don’t challenge them or show your emotions)
Narcissists like to snipe either in front of you or behind your back. Don’t let them get away with it.
If you call them out on their belittling and sarcastic remarks, and especially if you do that in front of others, it shows the narcissist boss that you will not be bullied. But don’t show emotion. Narcissists relish conflict. They enjoy your pain, so however difficult it seems, try not to show it.
Expert Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says: ‘The worst thing you can do to a narcissistic individual is to criticise, challenge or undermine him. If you do, he will react in an aggressive and combative way. And he will seek revenge.’
8. Assert your own role but let them make the decisions
Narcissists take credit for others’ work.
If your narcissist boss takes credit for your work in a meeting, let them finish, then politely thank them for bringing up the project, and then point out the role that you and your colleagues performed in the successful conclusion.
Like toddler taming, your narcissist boss needs everyone to know that they’re in charge. You can ask them for ideas for alternatives and let them make the final decision.
9. Keep it professional
Narcissists are charming and charismatic. Don’t fall for it! They’re not and they will never be your friend.
Keep your relationship professional. Don’t respond when they start talking about personal matters. Show that you’re listening, but don’t respond in the same way. Anything you do say on a personal matter is liable to be used against you in the future.
Remember: narcissists are master manipulators! Don’t give them ammunition to use against you – for example, by being late to a meeting. They can keep you waiting for hours, but they don’t hold themselves to the same standards they hold you to.
10. Be alert
If you cross the narcissist, they can be vindictive and start being a bully. If this is happening, keep a record. Be aware, also, that narcissists attract followers who will show the same tendencies and act as the eyes and ears of the narcissist.
11. Avoid them
If you don’t have to interact with them on a daily basis, don’t. Avoid them entirely, if possible. Be polite, but don’t engage in chit-chat. ‘A polite smile and a nod can go a long way in avoiding both flat-out confrontation and inauthentic adulation’, writes Patrick Malone, PhD.
12. Look after yourself
Working for a narcissist boss can damage your self-esteem. You need to overcome the damage to your morale.
Make sure you have opportunities to vent outside work. Just make sure you don’t vent at work, as the narcissist boss may be spying on you. If you can take a walk on your lunch break, do so. You may also want to change your working hours so that you have some time to yourself when the boss isn’t there.
Dealing with a narcissistic boss adds to your workplace stress, and you need to find ways to handle your stress.
13. Plan your exit strategy
Remember: a narcissist will always claim credit for others’ work. Before you start looking for another job, make sure you have a record of what you’ve done for your company. Try to look for another manager to give you a reference. It’s likely the narcissist manager will give you a terrible reference.
If you can keep your cool, hang in there. Narcissists can give wonderful interviews, and their need for power means they want to climb to the top of the pole as soon as possible. They may already be looking for their next job.
Obviously, if the narcissist owns or runs the company, this strategy won’t work, and you will be the one to leave. Weigh up the pros and cons of staying. Narcissists lack integrity. In the end, if you’re compromising your integrity, then it’s time to look for another job rather than prop up the narcissist.
Working for a narcissist boss leaves you in a no-win situation. Plan your exit strategy and stick to it, even when they beg you to stay. If you decide to stay, they will wreak their revenge.
Once you’ve left, make sure you block them on LinkedIn, your personal email account, your mobile phone number and all social media. It’s possible they will snoop on you even though you’ve left. Narcissists are vindictive. You suffered enough working under them, so don’t give them an excuse to bully you once you’re free of them.
It’s possible to survive working under a narcissist boss. Once you’ve recognised the type, you can overcome their manipulative ways and thrive.
Have you worked under a narcissistic boss? How did you deal with them? Let us know in the comments section below!