So, you think your boss is a narcissist.
Research shows there are a large number of narcissists who become leaders. If you’re unlucky enough to have one of these people as a manager, it may be no consolation that you’re in good company. So how do you stay sane? What’s the best way to reduce the impact of your boss’s self-centred behaviour?
What the Experts Say
It’s easy to be fooled by a narcissist—at least at first, says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, a professor of business psychology at University College London, and a faculty member at Columbia University. “A narcissist comes across as charming, charismatic, and confident,” he says. “He seems like the kind of person you want to work for—it’s only later that you see the dark side.” And the dark side isn’t pretty, says Michael Maccoby, president of The Maccoby Group and author. Narcissists have an exaggerated sense of entitlement and require constant admiration. They are quick to claim credit for others’ achievements and blame colleagues for their own failures. They care only about their own success, and they’re willing to take advantage of others to get what they need. In short, they’re incredibly difficult to work for.
Narcissism exists on a spectrum, and everyone lands somewhere along that line, says Ryan Fehr, an organisational psychologist at the University of Washington who studies ethics and leadership.
While some people are more narcissistic than others, the vast majority of folks do not meet the threshold to be diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder (only 0.5% of the general U.S. population do).
Still, your boss can be narcissistic even if they don’t have a narcissistic personality disorder. (In fact, some research suggests corporate workplaces over select individuals with narcissistic traits to fill leadership roles.)
Meaning, if you’re wondering if your boss is narcissistic, the answer is: maybe? And perhaps more importantly, there are ways to mitigate the harm caused by narcissistic behaviours and prevent a selfish boss from wreaking havoc on your work life.
What are signs your boss is narcissistic?
Think of narcissism as an overarching trait with some interesting and concerning behaviours and tendencies.
“Narcissism is defined in research as an inflated sense of grandiosity, or an inflated sense of yourself and your capabilities. It’s also about a preoccupation with reinforcing those inflated self-views by whatever means necessary,” Fehr says.
Basically, narcissists think extremely highly of themselves and will do whatever they can to uphold these views. This typically shows up as either seeking admiration from others or making other people their rivals and tearing them down to feel superior. How do you spot a narcissist in the wild, you ask?
Narcissists tend to be charismatic, motivated by positive praise and intent on demonstrating or discussing their strengths, Fehr says. They won’t admit when they make mistakes (an indicator of narcissism versus self-confidence) and will often take charge and use personal or organisational resources to bring themselves glory. Narcissists also have a low tolerance for criticism of their capabilities and act out when they feel their self-image is threatened.
A narcissistic boss is someone who exhibits narcissistic personality traits in the workplace. Narcissism is a personality disorder characterised by an excessive sense of self-importance, a need for admiration and attention, and a lack of empathy for others.
A narcissistic boss may be excessively preoccupied with their own achievements and success, and may demand constant praise and recognition from their subordinates. They may also be dismissive of the opinions and feelings of others, believing that their own ideas and perspectives are always superior.
In addition, a narcissistic boss may be manipulative and use others to achieve their own goals, and may be prone to volatile or aggressive behaviour when they feel their ego is threatened or challenged. This can create a toxic work environment and negatively impact the morale and productivity of their team.
How does narcissism affect workplace culture?
If you’re reading this article, it likely won’t come as a shock that narcissism dampers workplace culture and well-being – big time! We always say don’t walk past the behaviour you wouldn’t
“It’s difficult to work with narcissists because, unsurprisingly, they tend to act in very self-focused ways,” Fehr says. “This inhibits the development of high-quality connections because narcissists act in relationally destructive ways when they feel threatened.”
This might look like a boss taking credit for the work of someone on their team or having an outburst and berating someone who disagrees with them. When a person behaves this way, it makes it harder to have meaningful social connections or feel like you can take risks or grow at work.
“One of the biggest determinants of someone enjoying their work is if they enjoy the people they work with. If you work with a terrible boss, you’re unlikely to enjoy your job,” Fehr says.
Narcissistic bosses and leaders can be particularly harmful to workplace culture because of the influence they have. One study from the University of Washington found when narcissistic leaders model self-interested behaviours, they can influence workplace norms and reduce helping behaviours between co-workers.
In other words, narcissistic leaders not only seek out their own glory at the expense of others, but they can also create a culture where entire teams are focused on individual self-interest instead of collaboration.
15 Signs Your Boss Is a Narcissist
Those with narcissistic personality disorder can learn ways to manipulate others and feed their narcissism. They may rise through the ranks quickly by charming their superiors, but abuse everyone
Here are 15 signs that your boss is a narcissist:
1. They Talk About Themselves Almost Exclusively
Those with narcissistic personality disorder tend to think of themselves most of the time. They are very conscious of their physical appearance, wealth, talents, and achievements—and they expect your attention while they tell you about these attributes. These comments may tend to be exaggerated and are not necessarily accurate reflections of their lives.
2. They Have Fantasies of Greatness
Narcissists tend to be filled with elaborate fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty, or the perfect partner. Because of these imaginings, they feel they should have the best of everything—houses, cars and clothing or other status-affirming things like where they attend school. These wishes are a way for narcissists to fend off inner feelings of emptiness and shame and instead feel special and in control. They experience immense frustration and anger when their visions are not achieved.
3. They Require Constant Praise
Despite how outwardly confident narcissists may portray themselves, they are often quite vulnerable and insecure, with fragile self-esteem. To continually prop themselves up, they require near-constant attention, praise, and admiration. They also may expect to be recognised as superior even without achieving anything warranting praise.
Due to their fragile egos, narcissists are highly reactive to criticism. Any comments that shine a spotlight on their insecurities or flaws may be met with a burst of rage.
4. They Show a Sense of Entitlement
Narcissists think that others ought to offer them special favours and immediately fulfill their requests without question. If such treatment isn’t given to them, they may become impatient or angry, or give others the passive-aggressive silent treatment. They view others as existing primarily to serve their needs, abusing them and disregarding their wants and desires.
Howes mentions, “This need for affirmation and belief that they are the best will result in them taking credit for their subordinates’ work when talking to their bosses. They’ll also likely blame those subordinates and external influences when something goes wrong. They will likely feel comfortable challenging their bosses as they think they are better than them.”
5. They Take Advantage of Others
Many people are naturally drawn to narcissists, as they can present themselves as attractive, charismatic, and charming. Thus, narcissists may not have any issues getting people to do what they want, even causing work burnout for those under them. They are easily bored and seek constant entertainment wherever they can get it.
6. They Are Envious of Others
Because of their low self-esteem and need to be superior to others, narcissists see people who have things they lack—such as tangible items, status, or admiration—as threats. They don’t understand why they don’t have everything they want when they want it, and seek vengeance toward those who seem to stand in their way of getting the satisfaction that they feel entitled to.
7. They Lack Empathy
Narcissists are unable to empathise with others or understand that others may have struggles of their own. Even if they do recognise other people’s struggles, they don’t understand why these people don’t change according to their own needs.
8. They Have Boundless Ambitions
Having goals or ambitions in life is a good thing, but narcissists make their dreams the center of their world and expect others to want for them what they want for themselves. Because they feel superior to others and want to believe others find them naturally special, they often set endless ambitions for themselves. Narcissists fantasise about not only doing their best but being the best. When they fall short, they are enraged or deeply disappointed to the point of depressive thinking.
9. They Are Incredibly Insecure
This may be counterintuitive when you first meet a narcissist because they come across as charming, entitled, and believing they are superior to others, but people who suffer from narcissism are usually incredibly insecure which is why they feel the need to put others down. They often speak of people who are liars or disloyal but they are unwilling to recognise these traits in themselves.
10. They Are Remarkably Charming
On first impression, narcissists come off as charming and confident, but as the relationship develops if they are no longer perceived that way, they become denigrating of others and sometimes aggressive. People are generally drawn to narcissists at first because of their confidence and charm, though many find them suspect and vying for attention.
11. They Are Extremely Competitive
In a narcissist’s world view, there are only winners and losers. They will strive to be part of the former group without realising how their manipulations may put people off and create a toxic work environment. They must make themselves out to be superior to everybody else. Their incessant need to win contributes to their inability to embrace another person’s success. It’s all win or all lose, leading to depression if they think they’re losing.
12. They Hold Long-Lasting Grudges
Narcissists harbour vengeance toward those who insult or disapprove of them or don’t give them what they want. They take any perceived slight as a personal attack, and hold long grudges.
13. They Find Criticism Intolerable
Narcissists are unable to cope when things don’t go their way and will be hard-pressed to ever admit fault when they are wrong. This makes it impossible for them to take any kind of criticism, even if it’s constructive.
14. They Are Constantly on the Go
Narcissists push others to attend concerts, plays, expensive dinners, and prestigious parties because they can’t be idle. To be idle is to feel the inner tension of maybe not being as superior as they believe. Others are put off by this constant pressure to “do,” and the narcissist can’t relax alone or enjoy their own company except as a respite from their inner strivings. They may travel extensively and feel they deserve the best accommodations in planes and hotels.
15. They Get Their Supply From Having “Great” Communal Skills
Many bosses may be communal narcissist. They tend to have qualities which include using workplace events to create drama or start trouble. They come off as a martyr but find ways to get narcissist supply from others. They describe their work journey as a mission or a higher calling, positioning themselves away from achievement through merit.
What can you do if you have a narcissistic boss?
Dream job, horrible boss? You don’t have to quit to find some peace. If you’re stuck with one of these bosses, here are some strategies that might help.
Remind Yourself of Your Value
It will be difficult but not impossible, perhaps with the support of your co-workers, to recall why you got hired in the first place. That is, remember your skill set, your qualifications, and the references that led you to seek out and land this valued position. The estimation of your actual value is in your hands and no one else’s.
Keep a Paper Trail
Your boss will have more power than you in his reviews of your work that go on file. You may have to begin to create a paper trail where you respectfully respond to any criticisms detailing your achievements. This will help you retain your own feeling of empowerment and forestall being held back from future goals.
Network for Yourself
Make your own contacts with other leaders in the company. However, don’t broadcast these actions to your narcissistic boss who may feel quickly slighted and further enraged. This is a delicate but important mission for your own rising aspirations. Broaden your network. Ask yourself what you would ideally be getting from your relationship with your boss and find other places to get those resources, be it mentorship, opportunities or social support. This might mean connecting with your boss’ boss for career guidance, a professional organisation for learning opportunities or co-workers for friendship and connection.
Get Outside Support
You may find you take home the steady stream of manipulation with your boss’s voice echoing in your mind. This is the time to maintain self-awareness, self-observation, and introspection. Share with loved ones or others you trust what you are experiencing so you hear out loud others valid points of view about your work, your character, and your reasonable goals for the future. Their words will serve to counter what you’re hearing unreasonably at work.
Take Time for Reflection and Self Care
You deal with a narcissistic boss outside their presence. Even more importantly, you deal with your boss when you take their words to heart and slip into self-doubt, making those words your words. If you notice you are doing this, take all the time you need for self-reflection until your own perspective overrides that negative voice in your mind.
Practice self-care. Navigating interactions with a narcissist is stressful. Be sure to check in with yourself to see if there’s anything you need, such as a walk to decompress or a chance to share your feelings with loved ones. This will help prevent burnout and ensures you are also prioritising your own well-being.
Remember Who You’re Dealing With
Don’t just label your egotistical boss a “narcissist.” “There’s a difference between someone who’s an egomaniac and puffed up with self-importance and someone who has a narcissistic personality,” says author Michael Maccoby. When you’re dealing with the latter, it’s helpful to get a handle on what makes him tick. Read up on this personality type. After all, says Maccoby, “the more you understand people, the better your relationships will be.” Narcissists, he says, have a “strong ego ideal—a vision of who they think they should be. They are controlled by the shame of not living up to this ideal.” Productive narcissists are often creative strategists who see the “big picture” and find meaning in the risky challenge of changing the world and leaving behind a legacy, he says. It will serve you in the long run to make an effort to “understand who your boss wants to be” and take steps to “help him live up to that ideal,” he says.
Remember you are dealing with a vulnerable, easily wounded boss who unconsciously is carrying a load of long-held feelings of inferiority that they combat regularly. Your interpersonal tactics are unlikely to change their views. Remind yourself that your boss is inherently even more vulnerable than you are.
Avoid their triggers
It sucks to have to tiptoe around a narcissistic boss but being mindful of what causes their outbursts can help you maintain your own well-being. For narcissists, anything that threatens their self-image can instigate retaliatory behaviour. Knowing this can help you adjust, such as providing a critique of their work sandwich-style (couching constructive criticism between positive feedback).
Diversify Your Work Experience or Role
If you have opportunities to work with other leaders, you can have a variety of supervisors who can be references for future jobs. Getting exposure from others also gives you leverage in building social capital at work—and when you are dealing with a narcissistic boss, you need that.
Develop a Strategy
It’s important to be mindful that the narcissist boss will also have those who are suppliers and those who are injurers. When a boss has a narcissistic injury, they are often looking for validation and praise, so positioning yourself to be an ally can be beneficial for you if you are trying to work with them.
Keep interactions short and sweet. This is called the BIFF method, where you try to keep interactions with a narcissist brief, informative, friendly and firm. This means responding in just a couple sentences, without getting defensive or even acknowledging hostile statements, and being warm while remaining factual (versus emotional). The idea is to acknowledge that you have to work with the person while limiting your interactions and maintaining boundaries (i.e., not saying things that will prolong or inflame conversations).
Emulate certain characteristics
You may not learn how to be a good boss from your self-obsessed manager, but “many productive narcissists can teach you a lot,” says Maccoby. Watch and learn. Distinguish between his bad behaviours and more admirable skills. “Observe how your boss makes impressions on others. Pay attention to his charisma and how he is eloquent under pressure,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. “In addition, narcissists are often good communicators and tend to be quite visionary,” he says. “They have an ability to inspire others, and this skill can be emulated.”
Consult a HR or IR Expert
Employees have a right to work in comfortable work environments, and when these rights are violated, employees can take action. Speaking to a third party expert outside your company can give you some leverage and tips on how to move forward. Finally document everything!
Some great tips from Harvard Business Review
Principles to Remember
- Get a handle on narcissistic personality disorder and deepen your understanding of what makes your boss tick.
- Watch and learn—certain things at least. Observe how your boss makes impressions on others, and try to emulate his ability to inspire.
- Carefully weigh the pros and cons of staying. If you’re otherwise engaged and challenged by your job, it might be worth it to stay.
- Neglect your emotional wellbeing. Find an outlet outside your job that gives you a sense of self-worth.
- Challenge your boss. If you need to make a business case, frame your argument around what’s good for your manager’s career, rather than what’s good for the organisation.
- Gossip—whatever you say will likely get back to your boss.
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