How to Deal With a Narcissistic Boss
Tips to make your office a better place.
If you’ve had more than a few bosses in your career, you’ve likely had at least one stinker. There are cranky bosses, lazy bosses, spiteful bosses, indifferent bosses and sometimes straight-up dimwit bosses.
None of them, however, touch the special torment that is the narcissistic boss. If you’ve had one, you know that pain; if you haven’t had one, you never want to know it. Narcissistic bosses are the bullies and the credit-grabbers; the charismatic mentors who suddenly turn into despots; the impulsive deal-makers—drunk on the genius of their own grand schemes—who take over a functioning company and leave an over-leveraged wreck behind.
They’re the ones who are certain they know more than their accountants (but they don’t), who are convinced they can read markets better than all of their competitors (but they can’t), who will ultimately be fired and frog-marched out the door, screaming all the while that the fools who surround them simply don’t understand their genius.
Here are four signs that you’re working for a narcissist and some ways to protect yourself.
Every good idea is the boss’s idea: Raise a brilliant suggestion in a meeting and you can bet that when the boss presents it to the board you won’t get a jot of credit. Write a brilliant proposal and you can be sure that when it’s time to circulate it, the title page—the one with your name on it—will go missing. Don’t stand for it. Before you raise an idea in a meeting, tell a few trusted colleagues about it—preferably by email so its provenance is clear. Submit your reports with your name on the first page of text—or even in every header and footer—and share it as a hard PDF, not an editable file. And if an idea gets stolen anyway? Don’t be afraid to talk to Human Resources.
Bullying: Narcissists are often cowards, and cowards like to pick on people. In the case of a narcissistic boss, there is usually only one victim at a time, the better to create the illusion that the treatment is deserved. If you’re the target, talk to colleagues to confirm that the bullying is real and not merely the way you feel after what might be a justified reprimand. If it is, document the abuse in writing. If you’re bullied in private, stand up for yourself firmly and levelly. If you’re abused at a meeting, address that later, one on one, but don’t be afraid to speak up publicly if it continues. Build alliances with sympathetic coworkers who may stand up for you. And that thing about talking to HR? It applies here too.
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Blaming: Narcissists are never wrong. Ever. In all of human history there have been almost no confirmed accounts of a narcissist saying “oops.” So when things go wrong on a narcissist’s watch—and things always go wrong on a narcissist’s watch—the fault must lie elsewhere, and that can include anyone in the chain of command below the top spot. To stay out of the range of fire, it once again helps to document all of your work and to collaborate with colleagues closely so that all possible boxes are checked, leaving the boss little to criticize. For the sake of the overall operation, it’s also important to avoid the so-called blame contagion—which happens when the boss throws the grenade of blame to a vice president, who reflexively flips it to a senior associate who flips it in turn to an assistant and on down the line. If you’re unjustly blamed, stand up for yourself without taking anyone else down.
Vulgarity and harassment: There is nothing that says conspicuous power like using any kind of language you want while the people around you must watch their tongues. Actually there is one thing worse, and that’s using your power to sexually exploit subordinates. In the 21st century it should go without saying that these are no-go places—but narcissists don’t live in the 21st century, they live in the 15th. There are plenty of workplace protections in place to stop the abuse—most, again, running through HR. But until that machinery can start moving, establish your own zero tolerance. The occasional four-letter word is not a big deal, but a boss who is chronically obscene—especially when on the attack—has crossed the line. Make it clear that you find the language offensive and leave the room if it keeps up. The same goes for any kind of sexual harassment at all. You can’t fix a narcissist, but you can make it clear that you have limits. Establish them, announce them, and never waver from them.