Saturday, May 24, 2014

When Your Boss Is in Love with Herself

Quick—what kind of boss insists that everyone like her?

Here's a hint. Maybe she's also the kind that:
  • Thinks entirely too highly of herself and her abilities.
  • Thinks entirely too poorly of others and their abilities.
  • Feels entitled to encroach on others’ boundaries in the most casual yet persistent of ways.
  • Lies almost as often as she blinks.
  • Uses both covert and overt aggression to control others.

OMG. Who is this beast??

She’s your typical corporate narcissist, that’s who!

(If you guessed correctly, I’m afraid I don’t have a prize for you, despite that fact that I know you really, really could use one, if you work for or around this person. I’m sorry.)

George Simon, PhD, whom I’ve mentioned more than once on this blog, has published some of the best advice about narcissism and the narcissistic boss I’ve ever read. I'll be referring to his work throughout this post.

What’s a Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
Here’s the definition from Psychology Today (pay special attention to the sections in bold):  
"Narcissistic Personality Disorder involves arrogant behavior, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration—all of which must be consistently evident at work and in relationships. People who are narcissistic are frequently described as cocky, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding. Narcissists may concentrate on unlikely personal outcomes (e.g., fame) and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment ...

Narcissists tend to have high self-esteem. However, narcissism is not the same thing as self-esteem; people who have high self-esteem are often humble, whereas narcissists rarely are. It was once thought that narcissists have high self-esteem on the surface, but deep down they are insecure. However, the latest evidence indicates that narcissists are actually secure or grandiose at both levels. Onlookers may infer that insecurity is there because narcissists tend to be defensive when their self-esteem is threatened (e.g., being ridiculed). Narcissists can be aggressive ..."
Now why did I highlight those sections? Because that “old school” thinking about narcissists being scared little kiddies under their abrasive exteriors could make you vulnerable to their manipulation and get in the way of you taking care of yourself until it’s too late.

So forget that BS. Narcissists are dangerous, and you better approach one knowing it.

The Narcissistic Boss
A narcissistic coworker (especially one with some sway) can be very difficult to work with. A narcissistic boss can make work a living hell. 

Narcissistic bosses hog the limelight, don’t enjoy the sound of anyone’s voice as much as their own, clamp down on the free flow of information, blather on about themselves and their opinions all damn day long, always have to be right, can’t take any criticism, and engage in endless manipulation tactics, including never-ending rounds of impression management.


In a sense, we have no one but ourselves to blame, because narcissists have a way of charming us with their stories and their confidence, which is why so many narcissists are responsible for directing the work of others, God help us all.

But aside from the fact that narcissists—with their outright lies, fake protests of innocence, and ridiculous sense of entitlement—can make you want to slap the shit out of them, they can be terribly incompetent leaders, too.

A 2011 study by Nevicka et al, and published in Psychological Science, found that narcissistic leaders “reduced information sharing among groups, which led to worse group performance."

But wait. These guys are so good at impression management, researchers also found that group perception was that the narcissists were doing a bang-up job.  

Nevicka et al postulate that this perception likely changes over time, with team members becoming less and less enamored of the narcissist as his or her true nature is revealed.

(And it will be, because narcissists are obnoxious and can’t hide that fact forever. I know one narcissist, for example, who is disliked by just about everyone he works with. When I reported to him, people would regularly—without my prompting—express both their sympathies and their disdain. Still, he thought he was loved by all. Jerk.)

How Can You Survive Your Narcissist Boss?
In this case (as in so many others) knowledge is power. Read everything you can about these unsavory characters and the mind games they like to play. Then, believe what you read. Narcissists are very skilled at tugging at the conscience of those with better character.

For example, if your self-loving boss cavalierly suggests you engage in unethical behavior and you bristle, she’ll do her damndest to make you think what’s she’s asking is completely above board, and then she’ll pout and act outraged/deeply offended/confused as all get out that you could believe anything else. Don’t fall for that shit. Instead, stand your ground.

Here are some other ways to handle your narcissistic boss (courtesy of Dr. Simon):

  • Know the narcissist’s tricks (see above).
  • Stand up for your needs. As Dr. Simon rightly points out, your boss sure as hell ain’t gonna do that. Don’t be scared, speak your piece.
  • Set boundaries and limits. Narcissists will stomp all over your rights if you let them, and even when you call them out and they say they’ll never do it again, you can’t count on it. Instead, you’ll have to keep reminding them of what you will and won’t accept, because these folks are mighty hard headed. And while you might find the prospect of all this vigilance unattractive, the alternative is worse.
  • Be practical. Dr. Simon reminds us that narcissists have their needs, and it’s no good pretending otherwise. Do what you can (within your boundaries) to help the narcissist meet her legitimate business needs. 
  • Develop as many other opportunities as possible. Keep your skills and your contacts current, because your ultimate goal should be to get the hell out of Dodge as soon as the time is right.
  • Don’t take it personally. At times it’s going to feel real personal, but the narcissist is all about her. You (and everyone else for that matter) are an object to be used. Therefore, there's no reason for you to think her bad behavior has a damn thing to do with you.

I’ll add one other thing to the list: take LOTS of notes, especially if your boss is severely challenged in the ethics department. You’ll want that info to cover your butt and to give to the authorities if necessary. (I’m dead serious, here.) 

Also, if your boss is not only a vile human being but in violation of federal, state, or local discrimination laws, you’ll want the goods to nab him (or at least negotiate a good severance). And, that reminds me, do not hesitate to consult with an attorney (or two) if you believe the situation warrants.

According to one article, research indicates that “most horrible managers have a personality disorder.”


Like I said, knowledge is power.


  1. And, while you're at it, look for a new job.

    1. MOST definitely! The chances of your narcissist boss morphing into a good boss are slim to none.

  2. I work with a woman like that. Thanks to her I wound up in the E.R. last year. I'm going back into the hospital to have several procedures in June. At least this gets me away from her for a little while. Unfortunately I have only four years until retirement and at my age it's slim pickings to get another job. I do send out resumes and apply to jobs but I'm way past 50 and nobody hires people whose work history dates back to the 70s.

    1. Oh my goodness, what did your employer do that led to an ER visit? That's terrible.

      Yes, age discrimination is alive and well, but if you have a record of your boss' nasty treatment, maybe you could negotiate a severance and take early retirement?

  3. Extremely important topic. It’s not just tough to deal with an NPD coworker but downright traumatic. They create nothing but havoc in a company and the time they spend damaging the social framework around them takes just as long to repair. There are no happy endings.

    I was so glad to see your section on “How to survive your narcissistic boss,” and I fear that “survive” is often the best that most people can hope for. One needs both a. to fight (a long and draining kind of battle) and b. the help of another non-narcissistic boss if any kind of order is to be restored. If that can’t happen or it’s not a job worth fighting for, it’s time to leave and leave quickly. Narcissist = social virus.

    PS: Love your blog. -J

  4. Thanks, J, and I couldn't agree with your assessment more. I've known people who've worked with narcissist bosses for years and frankly don't know how they can do it. For me, it's always about a short-term solution until I can RUN!