Fear of speaking up, not receiving credit for your work, and doubting your perceptions may be signs you’re working with a narcissistic boss.
Narcissistic bosses and co-workers can turn a dream job into a nightmare. Their behavior can take a toll on the mental health of their colleagues and impact the entire workplace culture.
Working with a boss who engages in narcissistic behaviors can make you afraid to share new ideas, exercise your creativity, or be negatively singled out or thrown under the bus.
Meanwhile, getting a new job can be a time-consuming and anxiety-inducing activity. Maybe you have to “make the best” of dealing with a narcissistic boss — or your job is rewarding in other ways, and you don’t want to leave on account of one person.
How to deal with a narcissistic boss or colleague depends on the situation, but it’s possible. Some tactics could make protecting your mental and emotional health easier, even when facing a toxic environment.
Narcissism vs. narcissistic personality disorder
It’s important to distinguish between narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Narcissism is a personality trait that exists on a spectrum, and most people have it at some level. NPD is a mental health condition included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-tr).
Someone may exhibit narcissistic traits in one or more situations, like a workplace, without living with the personality disorder.
Living with narcissistic personality disorder isn’t a personal choice.
The condition is difficult to manage because it often involves poor insight into the impact behaviors have on others and the self.
Even though narcissistic behaviors can be damaging and hurtful, people with the condition aren’t necessarily the “bad guy,” in the traditional sense. They are often unaware of the damage they’re causing because the condition is often accompanied by a lack of insight. This complicates the experience of narcissism.
For the same reason, a narcissist who requires professional help, may not be aware they do.
Does it seem common to you that people in leadership roles may exhibit narcissistic behaviors? You may be onto something. A 2016 study pointed out that those with specific narcissistic qualities may be more likely to pursue managerial or leadership roles as a form of self-affirmation.
The study highlights that although some narcissistic traits can make it easier to become a workplace leader, followers often become disillusioned with the person’s ability to lead once they’re in charge.
But not everyone in a leadership position is a narcissist or lives with NPD. Still, you may be able to identify some narcissistic traits in some of your bosses:
A narcissistic boss can come across as charming. Often, this quality enables them to gain their position as a leader.
They may know how to control certain situations using manipulation tactics and games that portray them as captivating, charismatic, and engaging. This is particularly so at the beginning of a relationship, like during the hiring process, or when they can gain something from it, like before annual reviews.
Takes credit, but not the responsibility
When it comes to taking accountability for mistakes, they may be too ready to shift the blame to someone else.
Fosters a psychologically unsafe environment
Psychological safety exists in a group when each person feels safe to take risks and express opinions and ideas.
Suppose your boss is known for piling blame or responsibility for errors onto anyone who speaks up. In that case, it could foster a workplace culture of secret-keeping and competition as each person tries to protect their job.
Exploits others’ insecurities
A narcissistic boss can be quite conscious of the power they wield. And because pathological narcissism often comes with insecurity, a boss with narcissistic symptoms may project their insecurities onto employees.
For instance, they might use the fear of layoffs to discourage employees from taking breaks.
Micromanaging is connected to narcissism, as 2019 research points out.
Your boss might micromanage because exercising that power makes them feel validated and in control. It could also make it easier for them to take credit for your ideas or work later.
Gaslighting is an intentional misrepresentation of reality to make another person doubt their perceptions and ability to reason. This makes it easier for them to control and undermine other people’s confidence.
In the workplace, gaslighting might look like:
- saying “we trained you on this,” when the training never happened or wasn’t completed
- penalizing employees for focusing on tasks they were instructed to prioritize
- telling a team they weren’t “forced” to cancel vacation time after heavily pressuring them to
Getting out of toxic work environments is one of the best ways to avoid being negatively impacted. But leaving right away isn’t always possible.
Here’s how to manage if you’re biding your time when dealing with a narcissistic boss.
Knowledge is power. Gaining a deeper understanding of your boss’ psychology could help you better interpret and respond to their behaviors.
For example, many people with narcissistic traits live with deep vulnerabilities and insecurities, and their actions may stem from the need to protect their self-image.
You can also learn about the types of narcissism and consider which type your boss might resemble.
Developing your skills
Taking any opportunity to become well-rounded could aid your future job search if you want to leave your current workplace. Consider developing as many professional skills as possible or volunteering for new projects and initiatives.
Not only will you become more marketable, but you may be harder to let go of — and more empowered — if your boss knows they can’t afford to lose you.
Keep in mind, though, that although developing skills is important, so is “laying low” to avoid your boss feeling threatened.
Building your network
Is there anyone in your network who has been through something similar, and how did they manage? Where are they now?
You might want to lean into your network as you strengthen your skills. This could not only help you land a job with a more constructive culture, but provide support during the most difficult moments of dealing with your narcissistic boss.
Giving positive feedback
One of the best ways to stay in your boss’ good graces may be with positive feedback and praise. This tip isn’t for everyone — but if you can’t think of anything positive to say, the next best thing is probably to keep a low profile.
Admiration, compliments, and validation — so long as it’s somewhat sincere — are the way to go for someone with the personality disorder. One of the formal symptoms of NPD is the constant need for admiration and praise.
People with narcissistic traits may excel in certain aspects of leadership due to the high confidence they project and the ability to take risks, for instance.
Gray rocking it
A narcissistic boss may thrive off of your reactions and use them to exert control over you.
One way to stop their antagonism is to deprive them of a reaction — a practice called the gray rock method.
If your boss is trying to get a reaction out of you, try putting on your best poker face, pretending you didn’t notice their comment, and directing the conversation back to a work-related task.
Filling your own cup
- Digging into a hobby. Whether reading, caring for a pet, or painting figurines, being intentional about a hobby that brings you joy may give you something to look forward to each day.
- Focus on family. Pouring more energy into safe, close relationships could motivate you during tough work days. Remember that you may be replaceable at work, but you’re not to your loved ones.
- Meditate. Meditation and other mindfulness-boosting exercises like yoga and journaling could help you re-center and process difficult emotions that arise as you deal with your boss.
You may need to keep your guard up emotionally and professionally. It’s generally a good idea to avoid office “drama” and maintain strong work boundaries.
Avoiding the limelight is another way to keep a narcissistic boss from viewing you as a threat to neutralize.
Consider documenting anything that might come in handy for a case you plan to present to human resources or even an attorney. Documenting requests and keeping a record of what you’ve been working on could guard against your boss downplaying your role on the team.
Keeping your head down only goes so far, though. If something morally questionable, such as harassment, is happening, consider involving the proper authorities.
So what happens when you’re ready to resign? It can go many ways. It might help to prepare for verbal attacks, bargaining, or even flattery to convince you to stay.
Standing your ground and keeping your statements brief can help keep the meeting short and hurried. Remembering you’ll likely never have to interact with this person again can be encouraging.
Mental health support is key if you’re not yet able to leave — or have other reasons for staying. Consider reaching out to a compassionate therapist who can offer emotional support and help you troubleshoot difficult situations with your boss.
You can get through this professional life chapter. The interpersonal skills you learn while dealing with your boss may even help you deal with other narcissistic people in the future. Remember that you don’t deserve abusive behaviors, and your safety may come first.