Many of us, unfortunately, encounter a bad boss at some point in our careers. But a narcissistic boss creates its own special kind of headache.
At worst, they can chip away at your self-esteem by constantly needling you over your perceived faults and outright insulting you on a constant basis. They are always perfect; you are always wrong. Dealing with them can easily become a draining chore.
It’s important to note that narcissism exists on a spectrum. Just because you think your boss is self-absorbed one day doesn’t mean they’re a narcissist.
“A healthy dose of narcissism means that someone has a reasonable amount of self-esteem or self-worth. That’s normal, that’s not pathological,” said Marie-Line Germain, a professor of human resources and leadership at Western Carolina University and author of “Narcissism at Work: Personality Disorders of Corporate Leaders.” “On the other hand, people with extreme narcissistic traits must remain the center of the world at all times, and so in the workplace, these individuals are damaging to their organization, the culture of the organization, the morale of employees.”
According to the American Psychiatric Association, the symptoms for Narcissistic Personality Disorder can include a sense of grandiosity and self-importance, fantasies of perfection and superiority, a sense of specialness and uniqueness, a need for praise and attention, a strong sense of entitlement and a tendency to exploit others.
Of course, it’s up to trained health professionals to make an official diagnosis, but in the workplace, it can be helpful to be aware of how this kind of bad boss operates.
Here are some ways that narcissistic traits and attitudes can be exhibited in the workplace and how to deal:
1. They believe you’re either with them or against them.
Narcissistic bosses think in absolutes ― you’re either an ally or an enemy, there is no in between.
“You’re either an ally and if you betray them… you move to the enemy camp,” Germain said. “The day you move into the enemy camp, they will do everything to eliminate you from their entourage. They will fire you, they will demote you.”
2. They may initially charm you but then will trap you if you challenge them.
Germain said that often at the start of a working relationship, narcissistic bosses can attract employees with their charisma, making you feel like “you’re the center of the world” through their generosity.
But their mood can quickly sour if they perceive that you are challenging their worldview or calling them out on their bad behavior. At worst, they can isolate you or make you dependent on them for a job or a work visa sometimes, Germain said.
“The manipulation is part of the way they operate to continue having that power, status and admiration from the public,” Germain said.
3. They won’t admit they are wrong.
Narcissistic bosses deny accountability at all costs and are emotionally unable to accept defeat or criticism. “Because they are perfect, admission of error is impossible. That would shatter their self-esteem. Which, by the way, they have very little of,” Germain said.
You can see this as a boss blames employees for the boss’s error while denying that they had any role. In fact, when confronted, these bosses can turn the tables and play the victim, making you feel like the error was all your fault.
“They will call you a liar, they will say you have a mental problem, you’re faulty ― not them,” Germain said. “They transpose their mistakes onto others.”
4. They steal your ideas.
Germain said narcissistic bosses are “great thieves of ideas.” Because they believe they are perfect and are driven to maintain that unassailable self-image, they often feel entitled to take employees’ good ideas and pass them off as their own without worrying about morality. To them, that’s simply what it takes to stay on top of their business.
“If they are vice president of a company, there is an expectation that they do stellar work and so it doesn’t matter if they have to steal the ideas from someone else. They want to keep that status of being smart, of being the best employee they can be,” Germain said.
5. They ask for favors they won’t return.
If you expect a give-and-take relationship with this boss, think again.
These bosses will ask for favors and never return them because “they feel they are entitled to, they’re the boss,” said Nina W. Brown, a counseling and human services professor at Old Dominion University and author of “Working With the Self-Absorbed: How to Handle Narcissistic Personalities on the Job.”
6. They demonstrate a noticeable lack of empathy and can be verbally abusive.
There is no room for error with a narcissistic boss who doesn’t have the empathy to put themselves in your shoes.
“You try to explain why you were late with something or made a mistake, and the response that you get is, ‘Too bad.’ You just need to do better,” Brown said. “No understanding whatsoever of what may be going on that would have produced that outcome.”
Germain noted that an overt sign of this narcissism can show up in how these bosses verbally abuse employees by insulting their “physical appearance, or an emotional state or even an IQ, like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re so weak.’”
You need to be vigilant if you’re stuck with a narcissistic boss.
Managing a narcissistic boss can be exhausting work, but it is possible to cope through their leadership. Here are some strategies you can deploy:
Document everything. Germain advised keeping records and memos of conversations that can support you should you need to take legal action against this boss in the future.
Don’t talk to the boss alone if you can help it. Germain suggested bringing people to meetings with this boss and cc’ing other colleagues on email correspondence. “NPD [narcissistic personality disorder] bosses are weasels. They will work their way out of situations,” Germain said. “Unless you have witnesses or evidence, it’s going to be hard to prove there is something wrong with that person.”
Put the boss’s criticism in perspective and find supportive listeners. “One of the reasons why they succeed is they make you feel inadequate,” Brown said. That’s why she suggests finding a trusted confidant outside of work who will listen to you vent without judgment.
Because narcissistic bosses can make their victims feel like everything is their fault, Germain recommends talking to friends and family “to get a reality check about what behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable,” and to find a therapist.
Strengthen other work relationships so that your boss is not your world. Because narcissistic bosses purposefully work to make you see them as the center of everything, it can help to put energy into networking outside of their orbit. “Know that you will never get everything you need for your growth and success from one individual. Develop your community of seasoned leaders as well as your peer network,” said executive coach Aiko Bethea. “This provides you with a network of support, insight and growth opportunities.”
Quit. If you are reaching your breaking limit with how your boss is treating you, quitting may be what you need to do for your sanity. “The cost of being degraded or dehumanized in a job often far outweighs the perceived risk of unemployment,” Germain said. “But when leaving a job is not an option, the subordinates’ only choice may be to really steel themselves and control the damage in any way possible.”