Do You Have a Narcissistic Boss?
Your boss is self-centered, demands admiration and exploits you. Here’s how to survive
You were out of the office for a conference, or even surgery. Your boss didn’t say goodbye when you left, and he didn’t ask how it went when you came back. In fact, he didn’t acknowledge you at all. He did, however, get angry when he noticed you were on a rare personal call (this one with your doctor). In fact, he worked himself into a rage, telling everyone within earshot that you were “always” on the phone. He doesn’t appreciate (or recognize) the long hours you work.
Normally it’s risky to engage in armchair psychology, but if this sounds like your boss, you may both have a problem: He may have narcissistic personality disorder. The condition is marked by feelings of extreme self-importance, a thirst for admiration and a lack of empathy. It affects one out of 200 people in the general public, but it’s far more common in competitive, hard-driving environments such as medical school, the military, and yes, the office, according to psychologists Neil Lavender, PHD, and Alan Cavaiola, PhD.
Related: Quiz: Can You Spot A Toxic Coworker?
On the outside, narcissists appear arrogant and self-involved, according to Lavender and Cavaiola, who wrote the book “Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal With Dysfunctional People on the Job.” Narcissistic bosses like to brag about themselves and their accomplishments, they note, but they are also very quick to belittle others, especially those who are, in their minds, “beneath” them. Because offices are already hierarchies, it’s easy for narcissistic bosses to find someone to pick on.
Spotting a narcissist
Is your boss a narcissist? Take a look at the following checklist used by mental health professionals.
It’s from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V (DSM-V), the profession’s official guide to mental illness. If your boss shows the symptoms below, a psychologist would likely diagnose him (or her) with narcissistic personality disorder:
- He is antagonistic and has an exaggerated sense of self-importance (grandiosity)
- He is extremely self-centered and sees himself as exceptional
- He has strong feelings of entitlement and a firm belief that he is better than other people
- He is condescending
- He lacks empathy (other people’s needs and feelings simply don’t penetrate – that’s why he thinks he deserves a two-hour lunch break but protests if you leave early to care for a sick child)
- He requires excessive admiration and praise
- He always needs to be the center of attention
- His relationships are superficial
Despite these attitudes and behaviors, your boss might be quite charming at times. In fact, a narcissistic boss may be extremely charismatic, productive and innovative. He is willing to take huge risks (which may lead to his undoing), but he is often isolated and paranoid, preferring ‘yes-men’ to real teamwork, explained psychoanalyst Michael Maccoby, PhD, in “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, The Inevitable Cons” in Harvard Business Review. Many are verbally abusive and humiliate their subordinates in public, he added.
Narcissistic bosses tend to get angry and even furious over criticism. “They bruise easily [and] are almost unimaginably thin-skinned,” according to Maccoby. In some cases, the anger can be a sign of secret insecurities. They’re deeply worried that they might not really live up to their spectacular image, so they rage against the slightest affront to their self-worth, according to Lavender and Cavaiola.
Related: How To Tell If Someone Is Lying
Dealing with a narcissistic boss
People with narcissistic personality disorder may gain a more balanced outlook on life with the help of psychotherapy and medications to relieve certain symptoms, according to the DSM-V. But unless your boss gets help, you’ll need to find ways to cope.
“When working for a narcissistic administrators, our best advice is: Don’t take it personally,” say Lavender and Cavaiola.
If you want (or need) to stay in your current job, they advise doing what you can to tune out his over-the-top behavior. Remember that his criticisms aren’t really about you, and keep in mind that there might be some real insecurity behind all of that bravado.
If your boss has belittled you to other supervisors or coworkers, though, you should set things straight with them, according to the High-Conflict Institute, an organization that provides help in workplace disputes with “high conflict people.” The institute suggests reaching out to your colleagues or higher-ups without confronting your boss, and using language like “In case anyone was unclear about X, here are some details which you might find helpful…”
The institute also suggests “carefully” putting some limits on bad behavior, perhaps telling your boss, “I have to go now, in order to finish the project you asked me to do yesterday,“ or hinting that you are well-liked in the organization and have powerful allies there. Since a narcissist wants to be well liked by his superiors, he may tread more carefully.
Finally, remember: You can’t win a battle against a narcissist, especially when he’s your boss. But if it gets to be too much, you can always look for work elsewhere.