“How do I deal with my narcissistic boss?” is the most common complaint I get about high conflict people in the workplace. They are everywhere, and seem to be increasing these days – from the lowest supervisor to the self-destructive owner of the business.
They generally seek positions over others in order to help themselves feel better about themselves – because unconsciously they feel helpless and inferior. They need people below them to reassure them that they are “superior.” But it’s never enough.
Narcissistic bosses want (need?) constant reminders that they are the “best,” the “brightest,” the “richest,” or anything that feels one-up to those around them. If you have such a boss, you will naturally feel miserable. It’s the human response to being treated as an inferior. The trick is to learn how to “manage” this boss, until you can permanently get away from him or her. Here are some tips:
1. Understand their predictable patterns of behavior. Narcissists are self-absorbed. They lack empathy for others, are arrogant, feel entitled, and manipulate relationships to serve their own interests. At the conscious level they truly believe they are superior to those around them, but at an unconscious level they are very insecure. They demand attention and admiration from those around them. If you directly confront a narcissistic boss, he or she will do everything possible to “put you down,” to recover from the “narcissistic injury” you have caused them by temporarily destroying their fantasy of superiority.
2. Understand that their behavior is deeply rooted. Personality traits are mostly formed in early childhood for all of us. Narcissistic personalities are often developed: A) because of biological tendencies present before birth; B) as a defense mechanism against child abuse or an insecure “attachment” with one or more parent figures; or C) from being overly-empowered as a child without normal social limits or responsibilities. Therefore, you are not going to change their personality or get them to “look in the mirror” at their own behavior. Instead, you need to manage them in small ways that help you cope on a daily basis.
3. Understand their moods and behavior will swing back and forth. Narcissists can be very charming at times – usually to “win” people as friends or allies. Narcissists can be very vindictive at other times – usually as a result of a “narcissistic injury” when someone has threatened their superior self-image, either privately or publically. Both of these moods are temporary, so it’s not hopeless when he or she is being vindictive, and it is not over when he or she is being charming again. You can often influence these moods. You just have to be careful. I know you will resent having to watch your own behavior so much, but it’s not that hard and it will make your life so much easier.
4. Try to connect with Empathy, Attention and/or Respect (E.A.R.). I know this is the opposite of what you feel like doing. But this really works. Look interested when your narcissistic boss talks to you. “Butter him/her up” with an occasional compliment, asking a question (such as asking for advice on something), sharing an interesting tidbit of information, or thanks for some positive contribution. But be careful not to lie about a compliment, or put down your own skills in the conversation. Just be matter-of-fact and let the focus be on him or her for a few minutes. Don’t get defensive, because their comments are not about you. Resisting your own defensiveness can take great personal strength, but you can do it – especially if you remind yourself “It’s Not About Me” before you have a talk. It’s about the narcissistic boss’ insecurities and lack of effective social skills.
5. Analyze your realistic options. It helps to write down what has happened, to help you get perspective and take it less personally. Then write down what your options are: get a different job at a different company; get a different position at the same company; talk to someone else about strategies for dealing with this boss (human resources, ombudsperson, his or her supervisor, etc.); study your companies’ policy on bullying; etc. Knowing you have options will make you much stronger in the face of someone else’s ridiculous behavior. Just avoid direct confrontation, which is tempting when you feel stronger. You may need a positive evaluation or recommendation some day from this narcissistic boss. Instead, focus on something else, such as counting the days until you will no longer have to work for this boss.
6. Respond quickly to misinformation. Narcissistic bosses often “kiss up” to their superiors in the workplace hierarchy, to make themselves look good. This often includes putting someone else down, such as spreading belittling remarks about you or others. Without directly challenging the narcissist, you should provide the correct information as soon as possible, so that others in your company do not come to believe that these criticisms about you are true. If an email contains misinformation, respond in an email and just say something like: “In case anyone was unclear about …, here are some details which you might find helpful…” Then focus on factual information, without commenting on the distortions that may have preceded it. Your matter-of-fact tone and factual information will show that you are the more credible person. If you slip into counter-attacks you will hurt your own credibility in the long run.
7. Carefully set limits on really bad behavior. Narcissistic bosses are constantly violating other people’s boundaries, constantly insulting, and constantly demanding of attention. You are not going to change these behavior patterns, but you may be able to “contain” or stop specific behaviors for a while. First, think of the behavior that you want. Then think about whether this is a limit you could set personally (like saying: “I have to go now, in order to finish the project you asked me to do yesterday”) or need help in setting limits (like from the boss’ supervisor, a union representative, or a mediator). A mediator can add structure to the process and can help soothe the boss’ ego as needed. A company or union representative can add consequences, or the threat of consequences. You have to carefully decide which approach (or both) would be most successful.
Then, calmly but firmly say what you want or need to the boss. Focus on the future solution, rather than the past problems, as much as possible. Try to provide a good “external reason” that this will be good for the boss that’s not a personal attack – otherwise he or she will try to get revenge later on. For example, say how this change could reflect well on him somehow, or will help your department comply with some policy, etc. At all times, try to be empathetic and respectful. You can say you regret having to make this request, but you think it will help you both be more effective in the future.
Lastly, let the narcissistic boss know that you have respect from others and that you have the support of other important people in your organization. You can just drop little hints about this, or let him know more formally. Narcissists always want to look good in front of others, so they are less likely to mess with you if they know that you are not alone. And you’re not alone! This is a huge problem in today’s workplace and the pattern is very predictable. That’s why we’re putting out an article about it.
For an expanded discussion of dealing with narcissists in any setting, see Bill’s book: “It’s All YOUR Fault!” 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything, available on our website in the Books & Products section.