How to Work for a Narcissistic Boss

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Research shows there are a large number of narcissists who become leaders. If you’re unlucky enough to have one of these people as a manager, it may be no consolation that you’re in good company. So how do you stay sane? What’s the best way to reduce the impact of your boss’s self-centered behavior?

What the Experts Say
It’s easy to be fooled by a narcissist—at least at first, says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, a professor of business psychology at University College London, and a faculty member at Columbia University. “A narcissist comes across as charming, charismatic, and confident,” he says. “He seems like the kind of person you want to work for—it’s only later that you see the dark side.” And the dark side isn’t pretty, says Michael Maccoby, president of The Maccoby Group and author, most recently, of Strategic Intelligence: Conceptual Tools for Leading Change. Narcissists have an exaggerated sense of entitlement and require constant admiration. They are quick to claim credit for others’ achievements and blame colleagues for their own failures. They care only about their own success, and they’re willing to take advantage of others to get what they need. In short, they’re incredibly difficult to work for. If you’re stuck with one of these bosses, here are some strategies that might help.

Know what you’re dealing with
Don’t just label your egotistical boss a “narcissist.” “There’s a difference between someone who’s an egomaniac and puffed up with self-importance and someone who has a narcissistic personality,” says Maccoby. When you’re dealing with the latter, it’s helpful to get a handle on what makes him tick. Read up on this personality type. After all, says Maccoby, “the more you understand people, the better your relationships will be.” Narcissists, he says, have a “strong ego ideal—a vision of who they think they should be. They are controlled by the shame of not living up to this ideal.” Productive narcissists are often creative strategists who see the “big picture” and find meaning in the risky challenge of changing the world and leaving behind a legacy, he says. It will serve you in the long run to make an effort to “understand who your boss wants to be” and take steps to “help him live up to that ideal,” he says.

Tend to your self-esteem
One of the most important things you can do in this situation is take care of yourself. After all, working for a narcissist can be a demeaning and stressful experience. You’re in the mode “of self-survival,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. To cope, you need to find outlets outside your job that bring you pleasure and give you a sense of self-worth. “You can’t put all your marbles into this relationship,” says Maccoby. “It’s too damaging to your self-esteem.” Join a musical group; take up distance running; or start working on a book. “You need a basis for [deriving personal value] that’s independent” of your job, he says. “That’s generally true in life,” but it is especially important when your boss is a narcissist.

Stroke their ego
At the same time, you need to figure out how to work effectively. When dealing with a narcissist, flattery will get you everywhere. “They want people to love them, and they will believe any compliment you offer,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. Which is why, he says, pretending to admire your narcissistic boss “and sucking up will generally be effective,” he says. “Compliment your boss subtly and do it when you two are alone,” so as not to alienate other colleagues. If complimenting your narcissistic boss or praising him to others feels overly obsequious, don’t do it. “But at least be neutral and diplomatic,” he says. Another way to gain your manager’s favor is to make him look good in front of his boss. “Put in a good word for him and enable him to take some of the credit for your work,” he says. Become your manager’s advocate and his supporter. It might feel disingenuous to play politics in this way but, says Chamorro-Premuzic, try to remember that your goal here is a “selfish one: to advance your career. It’s difficult, but it’s ultimately to your benefit.”

Emulate certain characteristics
You may not learn how to be a good boss from your self-obsessed manager, but “many productive narcissists can teach you a lot,” says Maccoby. Watch and learn. Distinguish between his bad behaviors and more admirable skills. “Observe how your boss makes impressions on others. Pay attention to his charisma and how he is eloquent under pressure,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. “In addition, narcissists are often good communicators and tend to be quite visionary,” he says. “They have an ability to inspire others, and this skill can be emulated.”

Challenge carefully
“The worst thing you can do to a narcissistic individual is to criticize, challenge, or undermine him,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. “If you do, he will react in an aggressive and combative way. And he will seek revenge.” If you need to make a particular business case, Maccoby suggests framing your argument around what is good for your manager’s image and career. “Your boss doesn’t care what is good for the company,” he says. However, if you’re able to demonstrate that a certain strategy portends a disaster (or a victory) for your boss, you’re much more likely to win him over. “Narcissists are constantly trying to figure out, what does this mean for me?”

Don’t gossip
Indulging in workplace gossip is rarely a wise move. When your boss is a narcissist, it can be dangerous. “Be very careful,” says Maccoby. “These people tend to be paranoid and see enemies everywhere.” Anything you say will likely get back to your boss, says Chamorro-Premuzic. “Narcissists are constantly trying to collect information about what other people think of them.” If you need to vent, talk to your therapist, spouse, or a friend—provided they don’t work at your company or in your industry. Be as “neutral as possible” when your boss’s name comes up in conversation and “never put anything in email,” he says.

Weigh the pros and cons of staying
Even if you successfully employ the above tactics, chances are that working for a narcissist will take a toll on your satisfaction at work. Carefully consider whether you want to continue working for this person. Of course, quitting your job or getting a new boss isn’t always possible—or the answer. “It’s a personal decision, and some people are more tolerant than others,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. If you’re otherwise engaged in your job, find the work stimulating, and see the possibility of advancement within two or three years, it might be worth “the sacrifice” to stay, he adds. But if you find you’re working for a “narcissist with a destructive philosophy of domination and control,” Maccoby has one piece of advice, “Get out!”

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Get a handle on narcissistic personality disorder and deepen your understanding of what makes your boss tick.
  • Watch and learn—certain things at least. Observe how your boss makes impressions on others, and try to emulate his ability to inspire.
  • Carefully weigh the pros and cons of staying. If you’re otherwise engaged and challenged by your job, it might be worth it to stay.

Don’t:

  • Neglect your emotional wellbeing. Find an outlet outside your job that gives you a sense of self-worth.
  • Challenge your boss. If you need to make a business case, frame your argument around what’s good for your manager’s career, rather than what’s good for the organization.
  • Gossip—whatever you say will likely get back to your boss.

Case Study #1: Find an outlet to manage your stress
Karlyn Borysenko says that one of the hardest parts of working for a narcissist was coming to grips with the fact that her boss was not the person she thought she was.

“When I [interviewed], she seemed like exactly the type of boss I had been looking for: confident, capable, and driven to succeed. I thought she would be a mentor that I could really learn from,” she says. “She convinced me to take a 25% pay cut to work for her, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled to do it.”

Only a few months in to her job as a communications director for a media organization, Karlyn recognized that her boss had the traits of a narcissist. “Nothing was ever good enough, and God forbid if I ever did something right, she would always claim credit,” she says.

Karlyn did her best to keep her head down. “Every day, I would tell myself that it wasn’t about me, it was about her,” she says. “I had a mantra on a sticky note at my desk as a constant reminder that read ‘Act with integrity. Have compassion and empathy, even when others don’t.’ Whenever things got bad, I would just go to my desk, breathe, and repeat it.”

To help manage the stress, Karlyn saw an acupuncturist and also took up weight lifting. “Lifting was great because it was such an empowering thing to do each morning before I went into work to really feel like I had control over myself, if nothing else,” she says.

She also started making exit plans. “There was a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “If I hadn’t known [the job] was temporary, I probably would have fallen into a sea of depression.”

After she left her job, she started Zen Workplace, a coaching and consulting firm in New Hampshire. She says the experience reporting to a narcissist helps her identify with clients who work in toxic environments.

“I consider myself lucky now because not only do I get to work with people in those situations and help them move on, I also get to work with leaders who understand that culture is important and that when their employees are happy, the organization sees returns in its bottom line,” she says. “It’s one of the most fulfilling things I can imagine doing.”

Case Study #2: Stay on your boss’s good side—but know when enough is enough
Jesse Harrison says he’s dealt with a lot of narcissistic bosses over the course of his career, but one in particular—we’ll call him Sam—stands out. “Sam was a radiologist who had started his own business after his medical training,” says Jesse. “I admired him for that.”

But as Jesse got settled into his job, he realized Sam was a narcissist and quickly adopted strategies to deal with him. Because of Sam’s volatile and paranoid personality, Jesse knew he needed to stay on Sam’s good side. He discovered that complimenting Sam accomplished this goal. “I tried to make him feel good about himself,” he says. “Being an narcissist, Sam believed the world revolved around him. So my goal was to make him happy and make every conversation about him.”

Jesse says he’d look for opportunities to compliment Sam based on “skills he was excessively proud of.” For example, Sam used to boast about his superior reasoning abilities and his technical competence. “So every time I was presented with the opportunity, I would show my appreciation for his logic and his [facility] with computers. It fed his ego.”

The compliments were highly effective, but working for Sam grew increasingly tiresome. Jesse says he ate “lots and lots of junk food” and went on long runs to manage the stress. Ultimately, though, Jesse lasted only six months at the company.

“Every experience in life—even negative ones—makes you grow,” says Jesse, who recently founded Los Angeles-based Zeus Legal Funding, a startup that helps plaintiffs pay their legal bills. “Most important, I learned to associate myself with positive people more.”

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