When your boss is a strong leader, they can boost your confidence, help you to feel fulfilled in your role, validate your contribution to the organization and ensure your professional trajectory. On the other hand, when your boss is a narcissist, you may feel confused, like your walking on egg shells, insecure, burnt-out and overwhelmingly anxious. Narcissistic individuals often strive for positions of power and can make life a nightmare for their employees.
Red Flags Your Boss Is a Narcissist
We may have our moments of needing to be in control or behaving in ways that are self-absorbed or oblivious to another’s needs, but narcissists have distinguishing characteristics that go beyond the usual human flaws and normalized imperfections. Narcissism is a defense mechanism protecting a fragile, wounded self which they compensate by behaviors negatively impacting others. Narcissistic bosses can be charming and often viewed as great leaders who get the job done, but their techniques, manipulation and controlling behaviors although drive company results, take” prisoners” along the way. What are some red flags exemplifying the traits of a boss who is a narcissist? Although not a complete list, bosses who are narcissists often exhibit most of these:
- Lack of empathy and compassion
- Inability to admit their errors
- High need for praise and admiration
- Difficulty praising others
- Inability or lack of patience to handle disagreements collaboratively
- A need to control everything and everyone
- Takes credit for your hard work
- Needs to be the center of attention at meetings or otherwise
- High sense of competition with others and stokes competition among team members
- Difficulty giving constructive feedback and defaults to ineffective criticism
- Inability to control emotions and acts out when angry
- Creating chaos or conflict within the workplace
- Bleeding boundaries -taking advantage or hard workers or high performers
- No accountability or refusing to take responsibility for their actions
- Extreme sensitivity to criticism or feedback
If you’re working for someone who frequently or even moderately behaves in these ways, keep reading.
What To Do (And What Not To Do) When Your Boss Is A Narcissist
You may be recognizing that your boss exhibits narcissistic tendencies, but it’s likely not a big surprise. You’ve known they’ve been difficult to work with for a long time. Now you have a better understanding as to why.
Don’t lose hope if you’re working with a narcissist. There are some helpful things to know that will make working for them more manageable if you are in a situation where you need to stay at your current place of work. When you’re working for a boss who demonstrates narcissistic traits, incorporating some of these approaches can help you co-exist with them in as peaceful a way as possible. Not all of these tips may be comfortable for you, but they are simply techniques if you need or want to stay at your job.
- Ask questions about their ideas and let them share concepts with you. They are very proud of their work and want you to be interested in it, too.
- Allow them to talk about their achievements. Their accomplishments are a big part of their identity, and it’s how they try to connect with others.
- Try to anticipate problems in advance. You know what your challenges your boss – be prepared to deal with it before it becomes a problem.
- Give them some credit for your success. Even if it’s a stretch, let them know how they helped you reach a goal, finish a project, or do something well. This will help them feel needed and appreciated.
- Be as flexible and easy-going as you can. Narcissists don’t back down from conflict. The more rigid you are with them, the more emotional they’re going to be with you.
- Set boundaries in a gentle but firm way. Narcissistic bosses will keep demanding without attention to boundaries. Be sure to shut down the computer and not continue to respond to messages at all hours.
- Create a support system with mentors, leaders from other departments, and colleagues who are team players. This is important to ensure that if you need to stay on the job, you can still find ways to grow and achieve success.
Similarly, these tips are what you may want to avoid when you are dealing with a narcissistic boss:
- Don’t criticize or challenge them publicly. It’s okay to disagree with them, but do so in private when you can professionally and as gently as possible.
- Don’t expect them to mentor you or be your champion. They aren’t capable of genuinely supporting other people.
- Don’t try to compete with them, especially in an open forum. This will trigger their insecurities and will feed their competitive nature.
- Don’t expect them to be genuine or authentic. They have learned how to navigate the world without these traits, and it has worked for them. Don’t take it personally when they can’t act that way toward you.
- Don’t depend on stable or consistent leadership. Be prepared for it, by finding ways to ground and utilizing self-care.
- Don’t waste time defending your idea or arguing with them. They thrive in conflict and aren’t the type to back down.
- Don’t have high expectations of them changing. They are who they are and it will take years of deep therapy to help them develop the self-awareness they need to change their ways.
- As much as you can, limit one on one situations to only those required. Even if it means using a different restroom or taking the stairs to avoid them in the elevator, limiting the amount of time you spend alone with them will cut down on the negative impact they can have on you.
How to Cope with A Narcissistic Boss
We talked about what to do and what not to do when your boss is a narcissist, and that’s helpful information to teach you how to deal directly with them. But, how can you take care of yourself when you’re working under a narcissist? These helpful tips can make it a little easier to cope with a boss who has narcissistic tendencies:
- Practice self-care. Taking care of yourself is going to be your biggest source of strength to deal with an unmanageable boss. Everything from eating healthy to getting enough sleep to putting work away at a decent time in the evening will help your body, brain, and soul rejuvenate so you can have optimal energy, focus, and patience to deal with your boss every day. If possible, take small breaks in your work day to replenish. If you are remote, it is important to incorporate breaks just as you would if you were in the office,
- Set firm boundaries. Shutting down your computer and setting aside the work cell during non-business hours is one way to create boundaries. You can also let them know when you need to wrap up a conversation so you can reflect on what was discussed. If your boss is doing anything that crosses a line, such as yelling, berating, or harassing you, be sure to document and reach out to HR to address.
- Make sure you have a good support system. You’re going to need support and you don’t want any of your friends or family getting tired of listening to you. Try to vary who you turn to when you need to vent.
- Leverage your frustrations. You’re bound to leave work angry and frustrated sometimes. Instead of containing those feelings which will be toxic for your own mental well-being, head to the gym (where you can) and release your understandable frustration or incorporate other forms of exercise or meditation.
- Learn about narcissism. Awareness is always a significant advantage of how to cope and recognize that this isn’t personal although it feels like it is. Narcissism actually serves a purpose and is a way people learn to protect themselves from being hurt emotionally. When you have a deeper understanding of why someone might be a narcissist, it can help when you find your self-worth is diminishing.
- Look for guidance elsewhere. Your boss won’t be able to mentor you or help you reach new levels in your career. Look outside your organization, or to someone you can trust inside the company, to serve as a mentor to teach you the things you would normally learn from a boss.
- Find joys in other parts of the workplace and continue to engage with colleagues you trust and enjoy collaborating with.
- Document your “wins”. Your boss is probably going to take credit for your work, which isn’t fair but also isn’t something they’re going to change. Keep detailed notes about your achievements and your good work, so you can refer back to it if you need to when it comes to future interviews or advancement at the company.
Documentation Will Be Your Best Friend
In addition to all of the tips above, it’s also important to document, document, document. You never know what will happen when you have a narcissistic boss, so having everything documented will be key if you need to defend yourself, provide proof of an idea, or validate what happened.
Here are some crucial tips to help you maintain proper documentation when you work for a narcissistic boss:
- Save all emails
- Put everything in writing
- Take note during meetings
- Send emails to summarize conversations
- Keep all text messages
- Maintain a call log if your boss is calling you extensively or during non-working hours
It’s Not Easy, But It Doesn’t Have to Be Unbearable
I know it’s extremely hard working for a person who has narcissistic traits. It’s even more frustrating because they don’t know (or don’t care) how problematic their behavior is for other people. Part of working for a narcissist is accepting that you can’t make them change or act differently. Your power lies in your decisions and actions. Now that you know a little bit about working for a narcissist, you can engage with them in intentional and informed ways, which will hopefully make work a little bit easier for you.