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Dealing with a Narcissistic Boss

This blog looks at the challenging topic of dealing with a narcissistic boss. Many managers can be demanding and difficult at times but a true narcissist has behaviour traits that do not change and can make your working life a nightmare. Working under a boss who is unpredictable, self-centred, and easily upset, can be traumatic.  You may go into work each day, terrified of being insulted, shamed in front of colleagues, overlooked for opportunities, or even fired.

My previous blog looked at some of the most common behaviour patterns of a narcissistic manager. Narcissism, or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, can be almost as hard to deal with in the workplace as it is in personal relationships.  Not only are you forced into close contact with your boss every day, but you are also dependent on him or her for your income. This puts you in an extremely vulnerable position and your choices of how to act may be limited.

There are ways to deal with a narcissistic boss that may allow you to survive in the workplace. It’s very important to say that none of these are particularly easy and they many only be possible for you to use in the short term. Sadly, looking for a new job or moving to another department may be the only long term option that allows you to keep your sense of self esteem and emotional wellbeing. Some possible ways through are:

  1. Understand what you are dealing with and moderate your expectations

Doing some research on narcissism can be extremely useful as an initial step– clients have often said to me “when I looked up the signs and symptoms, it described my boss exactly.” Don’t keep expecting him or her to change – that if you only can form a good relationship with them, things will be OK. Remember that narcissists lack the empathy and humanity to treat people simply as equitable human beings, to have healthy boundaries, to make reasonable demands.

This strategy doesn’t mean you have to comply with every irrational requests.  But if you recognise and accept that irrational requests will continue to be made, however, you’ll end up feeling less stressed and angry.

  1. Treat your manager how he or she wants to be treated WITHIN REASON

Take careful note of how they represent themselves to you and to others. The more you pretend to see them for who they think they are, the easier things will go for you. Be extremely careful to mind your boundaries though – this is a deliberate strategy on your part, don’t let it affect your self esteem.

Similarly don’t make any remarks which might directly or indirectly bear upon their self-image, superior judgment, skills or professional record. Realise that a part of your job is to make him or her to look good. For example if you have significantly contributed to a company achievement, include your boss in the credit, even if he or she had nothing to do with it. Acknowledging his support and leadership, will satisfy their ego and make your employment go more smoothly. You might even want to ask him or her for advice occasionally (even if you never heed it); this will boost their self-importance.

3.Take responsibility for your own errors and don’t try to argue

Narcissists will rarely admit they are wrong, so do not try — explicitly or implicitly — to make your boss recognise his or her own mistakes. As far as possible don’t disagree or contradict as it may only lead to you being the next target for his or her negative comments thereafter. You cannot win an argument with a person who never backs down or owns up to mistakes.

  1. Don’t complain colleagues (unless you totally trust them)

Narcissists maintain power by being alternately very nice and very mean. They love to “divide and rule” singling out one person for favourable treatment one day and totally disregarding them the next. The same colleague who grumbled to you about your boss’s behaviour on Monday may be back in favour by midweek and what you have said in confidence may be shared and get back to the boss. It may be tempting, but don’t gossip about your boss. Save your venting for outside of work but do make sure that you don’t allow your boss’s behaviour to take up too much head space when you aren’t at work. Keep talking about what is happening to a minimum once you have vented at the end of the day. Yes, easier said than done, but it is vital to mind yourself and keep up with all the things you enjoy and the people who love and support you even if things are tough at work.

  1. Do not be at his or her disposal every minute of the day

Your narcissistic boss expect to consume all your time, even when you are at home. One suggestion might be to strike a compromise – such as I will answer calls/texts emails but only up to 7pm and not at weekends. Stick to this plan, even if your boss tries to stray from it.

If a compromise is ineffective, subtly sabotage any invasion into your private time. For example, when they call you, find an area where the phone reception is apt to be poor or make sure they can hear your noisy children or dogs in the background. Narcissists are easily irritated and make simply call someone else.

  1. Try to look for the positives

Again this is not easy to do but it may help you to cope if you realise that in some organisations, and in some circumstances, narcissism can actually be beneficial. Narcissists are often highly motivated and dedicated to success, and despite their primary goal of self- glorification, they may still make valuable contributions to an organisation.

It may make sense to work for a narcissistic boss in order to launch or accelerate your career (think Meryl Streep’s character in ‘Devil Wears Prada’). Even though you won’t get any empathy or support from a narcissistic boss, the benefits of what you learn from working for him or her MAY outweigh the emotional costs.

And do beware that your boss is not the only person who you’re working with- you can still form friendly relationships with your colleagues and get some enjoyment and fulfilment from the job.

  1. Have a long term plan

The above tips may only help you for so long, depending on the level of toxicity in the situation. If there is outright harassment or abuse going on, report it to a more senior manager or human resources department, if appropriate.

If this gets you nowhere and you are finding that you are really suffering emotionally, not sleeping well and it is affecting other areas of your life, you may have to start to  explore other potential opportunities in your job area. This is tough and extremely unjust but your mental and physical health and wellbeing HAVE to come first.

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!

See also: A Narcissistic Boss, What is a Narcissist?, Gaslighting