Your boss’s three favorite words are “me,” “myself” and “I,” and they’ve never really gotten that “There’s no I in team” thing, because it’s all about them, all the time.
The world is unfortunately full of narcissistic bosses whose self-aggrandizing and resistance to criticism has propelled them to leadership positions. (Of course, there are just as many, if not more, whose career ambitions are sacrificed on the altar of their ego.)
Working for a narcissist can be draining, demoralizing and destructive to your well-being and career, but if updating your resume and finding a new job is impossible, experts say there are some tactics for managing a narcissistic manager until you can leave.
Know what you’re dealing with. “One thing that’s under-appreciated is that there are generally two types of narcissist, the grandiose narcissist and the vulnerable narcissist,” says Seth Spain, assistant professor of organizational studies and leadership at Binghamton University. Of the two, the grandiose narcissist is the more benign one. “They take criticism alright because they don’t believe it,” Spain says. On the other hand, the vulnerable narcissist is prone to paranoia and acutely defensive against anything they perceive as a slight, no matter how mild or unintentional. “Their ego inflation is a defense against not really believing in themselves,” Spain says, so they’ll defend that over-inflated sense of self at all costs.
Practice avoidance. If your boss is a vulnerable narcissist, your best bet is to keep a wide berth, Spain says. “You want to avoid even the appearance of criticism if you’re stuck working for this person,” he says. “You want to have as little face-to-face contact as you can possibly manage… The more you interact with them, the more likely it is you’re going to unintentionally slight them in some way,” he says.
Be a good professional ally. Things are more likely to go smoothly if the narcissist sees you as someone who’s on their side. “You want your boss to see you as an asset to further his or her status in the organization,” says W. Keith Campbell, professor and head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia. It’s useful for you if they see you as useful for propping up their ego, particularly in front of others. “Use flattery and try not to outshine him or her,” he says.
Know their weak spots. See what trips them up and anticipate where their behavior might cause problems for them. “Narcissists are especially prone to errors of overconfidence,” Lee Macenczak, assistant professor of management at Kennesaw State University, wrote in a recent study in Personality and Individual Differences.
“A narcissistic boss who radiates feelings of superiority, entitlement and a constant desire for admiration may also be more likely to make risky decisions,” a recent Association for Psychological Science article points out. If your big-headed boss makes big promises that could swamp them, you can better position yourself to avoid the fallout.
Manage their unrealistic expectations. If the narcissist’s ego is at stake, even facts can go on the back burner. “You do sort of have to actively fight misinformation on the part of the narcissist,” Spain warns. “They’re always going to be taking credit or making grand claims people can’t back up,” and depending on your role in the organization, this can put you in a bad spot. “If the boss is trying to set expectations that are completely unreasonable, you have to try and push back against that,” he says.
Use specifics to fight back. If your boss screams at you within earshot of the entire department, it might be tempting (and satisfying) to call them out as a the egomaniac they are, but Spain says a more successful way of trying to thwart such behavior is to focus on concrete details. “Make it about the problematic behavior, try to focus on the current situation [and] keep your criticism as specific as possible,” he says. You also could frame it as an appeal to their all-encompassing ego, saying that while you were hurt by their outburst, for instance, you’re also concerned that this behavior could damage their reputation as a great leader. (Whether or not they actually have such a reputation is unimportant here.) “If you can couch a criticism in a flattery it can work well,” Spain says.
Have an outlet to vent. This is important; narcissistic bosses are notoriously exhausting to work for, and you might need that network if they fire you in an egomaniacal fit. “Build a broad and supportive social network within and outside the organization in case you are let go by the boss, or want to leave because you just can’t take it anymore,” Campbell says.
Realize that it is about them, in a way. “Narcissism is partially about dominance. They make themselves feel big by making other people feel small,” Spain says. In other words, belittling you at a meeting or sending a scathing email is more about feeding their ego than providing feedback. “Knowing it really has nothing to do with you can help your self esteem,” he says.