Working with a narcissistic boss can be full of landmines. Depending on your personality type, working for a narcissist can be extremely challenging (an understatement) and for a select few, still challenging but financially rewarding.
First, you need to be able to identify and a narcissist and understand what makes them tick.
Characteristics and Motivations of a Narcissistic Boss
- A narcissist needs constant validation, ego stroking, and admiration. They will avoid most interactions that don’t provide those things and work to undermine, punish, or emotionally abuse anyone that does not interact with them in this way or worse, makes them feel embarrassed, shamed or disrespectful
- Their empathy quotient is extremely low to non-existent
- Big rewards are available to those that do the bidding of the narcissist without question. This creates moral hazard and questionable ethics
- It’s all about them. Even when something is about you or for you, it’s still about them
- They may seem generous and affable, but they will wield heavy-handed control and emotional blackmail as a tool to drive behavior. It’s abusive but highly effective
- They will use Information as power and share or withhold information strategically to advance their personal objectives, leverage relationships, and pit colleagues or vendors against one another for their own gain
- They build many bilateral relationships and maintain power and control by having very close one-to-one relationships with subordinates that often do not encourage teamwork or playing nice in the sandbox
- Heavy emphasis on loyalty. A narcissistic manager will punish, demean, emotionally abuse and eliminate the non-loyalists
- When you’re communicating to a narcissist, they might listen, but they won’t hear you. All of their views are right so when you try to give feedback or input, you are undermining them and you’re going to be punished or pushed aside for undermining them.
- They cannot handle being challenged – publicly or privately. If you must challenge or question a narcissist boss, it must be done privately to avoid being punished for your lack of loyalty
- Raising concerns about your work, clients, or the business can be very dangerous because the narcissist will see it as criticisms of them
- When things go wrong between you and your narcissist boss, it will always be your fault. Do not forget this.
- The narcissist boss wants you to do their bidding without pushback, input or challenge. They will enforce rules inconsistently when it suits them. They will play favorites and the rules don’t apply to them when it’s not convenient for them.
- Narcissistic bosses can be very generous with pay, bonuses, and fringe benefits. It’s one of their most powerful tools for control and emotional blackmail over their direct reports.
I have worked for a couple of bosses who were narcissists in my career.
Below you’ll find FOUR things I tried to do that failed and left a trail of tears and some blood in the wake. I’ve learned some lessons, however, which I share with others as often as possible. Sometimes knowing what won’t work is just as powerful as knowing what will.
Strategies That Will Not Work
- Focusing on what you think or believe to be important vs. focusing on only what is important to them.
Why it doesn’t work: It’s always about them. When you focus or take action on things you feel are most important, your boss will view it as insubordination, a personal challenge, and disrespectful. To thrive under a narcissistic boss, you may only focus on their priorities.
- Challenging them respectfully in a group or team setting
Why it doesn’t work: They cannot handle being challenged – publicly or privately. If you must challenge or question a narcissist boss, it must be done privately to avoid being punished for your lack of loyalty. Challenging the narcissist is viewed as confrontation, an embarrassment, or insubordination and is responded to fiercely and abusively.
- Believing that the wrath/abuse you received was your fault and that had you taken a different path or approach, the outcome would have been better.
Why it doesn’t work: The narcissist will always make you feel awful so you need to protect yourself with mindfulness, self-care, and proper boundaries.
- Not setting healthy boundaries.
Why this doesn’t work: A narcissist will expect you to do their bidding on their whim and on their time frame. Failing to set boundaries can result in you losing control over your work, your calendar, and your mental health. Setting proper physical and mental boundaries is key in surviving in a relationship with a narcissist.
What you need to do if you are highly empathetic: Find a new boss or stay as far away from her or him as you can. This is a very damaging relationship combo in the workplace and in life and will always lead to pain and dysfunction. Seriously…run.
Eli Howayeck (MBA, Kellogg School of Management), Founder and CEO of Crafted Career Concepts, is passionate about helping motivated people achieve their career, educational, or personal goals and helping businesses, large and small, overcome a variety of challenges facing their business.