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Dealing with a narcissistic boss without losing your mind

Some grandiose narcissists may be visionaries, but that doesn't make it an honor or pleasure to work with them; on the contrary, they can be extremely destructive --one reason they are sometimes referred to as vampires. Because of grandiose narcissists' disregard for others, they are not unlikely to break company policies and/or violate laws. If you must work for a malignant narcissist, protect yourself by considering the practices outlined in this article, which may include reporting their violations of policy or law and/or engaging legal counsel.


“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important … They justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” — T.S. Eliot



Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental health condition in which people have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance yet are extremely fragile at the same time. They need and seek too much attention and want people to admire them, yet they lack the ability to empathize with or care about the feelings or rights of others. Behind their mask of extreme, arrogant confidence, narcissists can become upset and angered over the slightest criticism.


According to a fairly recent study out of Stanford University, upwards of eighteen percent of CEOs might be considered narcissists. By comparison, some experts estimate that only five percent of the U.S. population is narcissistic. This suggests that narcissism might be up to three times more prevalent among CEOs than among the general population. One of the authors of the Stanford study notes, "Narcissistic CEOs exhibit more extreme performance outcomes, make more aggressive strategy bets, make worse acquisitions, have lower quality earnings, and receive excessive pay. Based in part on research studies such as these, one literature review concludes, 'There are few positive outcomes of leader narcissism.'" See article here: Are Narcissistic CEOs All That Bad? (harvard.edu)


If you work with a narcissist, you probably know firsthand how unpleasant they can be. Narcissists feed on drama in the workplace. They enjoy getting people stirred up so they can play the sane one, or the rescuer, or the victim. The Narcissistic boss [let’s call him “the NB” but he could easily be “she” or “they”] creates drama so that he can look like the reasonable one, the level-headed one, the person who can figure this whole thing out while others are falling apart or just appearing not to know what to do. And then, before you can blink, the person the NB got all worked up is the “crazy” one, the “disloyal” employee, the employee who just isn’t "cutting it." That’s fine when it’s not you being targeted, but what about when it is? Nobody is immune from attack when working with an NB. You may go through a period of being his favorite, but you will experience a fall from grace for nothing you can clearly put your finger on. And then nothing you do is right. You must toil away in your silo until you are forgiven, or he loses interest in punishing you. Or you’re let go from your employment.


In addition to the good employee/bad employee game, another handy tool in the NB’s toolbox is triangulation, the process of bringing a third person into a dynamic for the purpose of creating distrust and destabilization. You’ll know you’re being triangulated when the NB privately praises the person in the office with whom you feel most competitive (yes, the narcissist is aware of that, and s/he could be the one who set up that dynamic). The NB might compare your performance to that person's, or mention something slightly demeaning that person allegedly said about you or the quality of your work. If you pay attention you’ll notice a pattern: when the NB becomes even slightly uncomfortable or insecure in a one-on-one with you, he will bring up the name of a third person who could be potential competition for you. “Oh, you can’t do the task. That’s okay, I’ll ask [your competitor]" or "Get back to me immediately. I also asked _______ for their opinion." Before long, you’re churning with confused emotion, distrusting your co-worker and feeling angry at your NB --feelings you know you have to suppress and which quickly erode productivity. Triangulation can destroy working relationships between people who probably have qualities to admire in one another.


Yet another tool in the NB’s arsenal, one that everyone is familiar with by now, gaslighting refers loosely to manipulating someone in order to make them question their own reality. The NB can do this by denying past events, downplaying your emotions, or retelling events so that you take the blame. Oh, and by the way: the NB will never take the blame for something going wrong at work, so if you want to continue working with your NB (or if you don’t have a choice), you need to accept his blamelessness and find ways to work around it to protect your job. Gaslighting allows the NB to deflect blame by putting negative attention on you instead of on him. In domestic narcissist abuse cases, a spouse might respond to the question, “Where have you been all day” with a gaslighting response such as “Wow! You are really angry!” In the workplace it’s a little different but has the same flavor. It’s about deflection. Classic gaslighting phrases:


o “That’s not what happened,” sometimes followed by “your perception of reality is off base.”

o “Don’t get so emotional, we’re just talking about a project, are you crazy?" when you know you’re speaking in a calm voice.

o “It was just a joke,” followed by “You’re no fun,” or “You have to have a sense of humor if you want to work here!”

o “It’s not such a big deal; stop exaggerating.”


One of the things I hope I am conveying is that because they must remain blameless, narcissists throw people under the bus in ways large and small. You must be ready for this to happen. You must be ready to take the fall and the blame when things go badly, which can in turn impact other people's perceptions of your success and, ultimately, your reputation. Nothing is ever a narcissist’s fault. They rarely accept responsibility for their mistakes, and to avoid experiencing shame or humiliation they will blame other people for the consequences of their own actions. Most of us who have worked in law firms know at least one attorney who can’t keep an assistant longer than a year and who blames young associates for their screw ups, bad mouths lawyers in their own firm to opposing counsel, blames trial failures on second chair, and who routinely tells judges that someone in their office is responsible for the calendaring error that caused papers to be filed late or someone to miss an appearance. Narcissists do not make mistakes unless admitting a mistake will make you look bad, as in “the biggest mistake I made was hiring you.” Narcissistic bosses are likely to have their supporters, "flying monkeys" as they are known in the narcissistic parlance, people who are useful in normalizing the narcissist's behavior by supporting the narcissist's decisions and explaining where other people have gone wrong. When flying monkeys are leaping around, repeating and supporting the narcissist's latest mantras, you may feel like you are losing your mind.


Okay, you’ve convinced me my boss is a toxic narcissist. How should I deal with it?


Look for a position in a different department or consider resigning. When narcissists are empowered – this is based on having counseled hundreds of unhappy employees over thirty years – they can and do make the workplace so toxic that people around them become mentally and physically unwell. And if there is a reality denier, a yes person, or a flying monkey in HR, which is not the least bit uncommon, toxicity can intensify. Nobody thrives under narcissistic leaders, not even the narcissist’s current favorites who are merely tomorrow’s rejects. The workplace churns. There is constant backbiting. Authority is undermined, and subordinates are routinely humiliated. The workplace is unstable and chaotic. If you can get out, try to.


Maintain traceable communication through email or its equivalent. Later on, there won't be questions about what was said, when, and to whom. It will be all be clear. This puts the burden on you to be as clear as possible in your communication with the NB.


Try grey rocking. If leaving is not an option, grey rocking is a concept of temporary usefulness when trying to deflect narcissistic abuse. It refers to making yourself as interesting as a – well, a rock. The thinking is that if you are less visible, less provocative, less on the NB’s radar, you will experience less negative attention. The concept of grey rocking could but doesn’t necessarily include things like:


-adopting a style of communication with the NB that is neutral and not controversial (no jokes or kidding around, no sarcasm, no gossip, no chatting – in short, no form of communication that could give the NB ammunition);


-limiting communications with the narcissist to strictly work-related topics;


-keeping the tone of your voice modulated and unemotional;


-not disclosing emotions or personal information about yourself or anyone else;


-avoiding prolonged eye contact; and


-since NB’s are very jealous, greyrocking office friendships by avoiding talking about social plans with co-workers within the hearing of the NB.


Do not let the NB know if you have concerns about the quality of your work. If you are an extremely conscientious person, you may also be the kind of employee who submits work to a boss with the statement to the effect that you are not completely sure that a project is perfect, or that you feel you might be missing some key points. With some bosses this kind of candor is appreciated and will inspire them to review your work with greater generosity. With a grandiose narcissist, however, admitting weakness when you don't have to may be used to your disadvantage, now or at a later point. I am not suggesting that you assume the false confidence of a narcissist by asserting that your work is the best anyone has ever done. I'm just suggesting that you not call any attention to your own lack of certainty about whether you have completed an assignment to the best of your ability.


When there are issues, ask for more written detail, in writing. The impact of narcissistic bosses who may tend to use sweeping generalized statements when criticizing an employee (“You never use spell check,” “This is yet another failure,” or “Your performance is not acceptable”) can be lessened by requesting more detail. In writing, please.

  • “I would like to get more detail about how my performance fell below expectations. Would you please detail specific items that could be improved? I would be very appreciative of this opportunity to improve"

is one example of the kind of an a--kissing email that might be necessary to let the NB know that you value his feedback --and also that he is being observed. Asking for written detail, in writing, creates a record. He knows that. If he’s smart (and he is), he probably doesn’t want to get involved in a writing war with you and may tone down his condemnations as a result.


Watch and Talk to the NB’s Long-Term Favorites (if there are any) If there is a way to learn the favorites’ methods for dealing with the NB without your query getting back to the NB, this could be useful information to have. Of course, favoritism is accorded unequally, and it may be inappropriate for you to adopt the favorites’ ways of dealing with your NB, but it could still be useful to understand the NB's triggers and weak spots. And on that note...


Stroke the NB’s Massive, Extremely Fragile Ego. Narcissists who believe they’re the center of the world paradoxically need frequent praise to be happy at work. Maybe you could think of your NB as a child who needs positive reassurance and validation every single day.


Self-Help: Consider Making a Complaint. Your boss being a narcissist is not the basis for a complaint, but because narcissists care so little about other people’s rights and have little disregard for rules, they tend to break company policies – which is the basis for a complaint.


Contact an employment or labor attorney. Speak to a legal expert who can give you tips on how to leverage your situation and move forward. I am available to talk to any employee in the state of California about any employment issue, including working with a toxic boss. The first consultation is always free.


NOTE: Readers should contact their attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular legal matter. No reader, user, or browser should act or refrain from acting on the basis of information in this article without first seeking legal advice from counsel in the relevant jurisdiction. Only your individual attorney can provide assurances that the information contained herein – and your interpretation of it – is applicable or appropriate to your particular situation. Use of, and access to, this article or any of the links or resources contained within the article do not create an attorney-client relationship between the reader, user, or browser and the authors, contributors, contributing law firms, or committee members and their respective employers.

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