When Working For a Narcissist
It’s all about them, rarely about you. Satisfying their endless need for attention is exhausting.
By Mark Swartz
They constantly boast about their accomplishments. Are quick to berate people in public. And do anything to deflect criticism – by lying outrageously or pinning blame on the innocent.
Those are just some of the perils of working for a narcissist. In the extreme, these traits (and others described below) may describe someone who has NPD, a.k.a. Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Since your job could depend on appeasing this self-centered supervisor, here’s how to recognize and steer around NPD behaviours.
Do Any Of These Symptoms Seem Familiar?
Narcissism is more than just being egotistical. After all, tooting your own horn can be advantageous, especially in this age of social media exhibitionism.
NPD tends to be much more noxious. See if more than a few of the following traits apply to your boss:
1. Displays an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
2. Needs constant admiration by way of compliments, flattery and outward recognition.
3. Acts like they’re overly entitled.
4. Is either very envious of others, or is convinced that people are always jealous of them.
5. Treats their employees like servants who are there to fulfill the boss’s whims.
6. Is unwilling or unable to demonstrate empathy.
7. Reacts harshly (and defensively) at even the hint that they’re imperfect.
Other attributes to watch for: refusing to allow differing viewpoints; seeming to take pleasure in bullying and devaluing others; or having little respect for boundaries (though you’d better respect theirs!).
What Underlies The Disorder?
Narcissists are like living oxymorons. On the one hand they can be brutishly arrogant. Bragging incessantly. One-upping any who dare to challenge them.
But beneath this boastful façade is often insecurity. The person may be deeply worried that they’ll never be good enough. To avoid revealing this vulnerable side, they overcompensate with bluster.
In many ways it’s similar to imposter syndrome. In both a coping mechanism is to overwhelm anyone who threatens to reveal that the emperor has no clothes.
So How Do You Deal With A Narcissist Boss?
Disorders like these run along a spectrum. Your boss might be self-centered, vain and uncaring. That may qualify as a normal (though prickly) personality. But if there are numerous, ongoing NPD symptoms, treat this person with caution.
Don’t expose their deficiencies. This translates into much lip biting and pretending that their mistakes are mostly your fault. Not so great for your own ego, but it keeps their fragile one from erupting at you.
Fake being friends. Expecting a narcissist to like you back may be unreasonable. That shouldn’t stop you from feigning interest in their dull hobbies, praising their meagre accomplishments till it hurts, and including them in after-work social gatherings so they feel good about themselves.
Give up on expecting them to change or to take your well-meant advice to heart. NPD is a form of mental illness that is resistant to good natured, empathic gestures from underlings.
Focus on concrete solutions for conflicts and problems. Stay away from emotional approaches that make you look weak, yet let the boss have final say. If things go sideways re-read the “Don’t expose their deficiencies” paragraph.
Narcissist? or Sociopath?
Another disorder with comparable symptoms is sociopathy (and psychopathology). As with NPD they’re associated with exploitation of others, poor bonding and inability to accept blame.
In either case you’re dealing with a disturbed psyche. Normal attempts to improve the dynamic are apt to fail. It’s not your fault; these are serious illnesses that require professional treatment.
Strategically kissing up to a boss with these afflictions may preserve or advance your own career. Should their actions become intolerable, you’re unlikely to outmanoeuvre them. You may have to look for a transfer or new employer, simply to protect your own mental health.