You made a big mistake. You criticized your boss for the way they delegated the project. Now you are in her sites. You’ve pulled the pin on the grenade and now you are holding it. No one critiques the narcissistic boss because the collateral damage is huge. Your next performance review will be toast and your next assignment will be unattainable and sure to fail with heroic deadlines not met. Hell hath no fury as a narcissistic boss who is criticized.
I haven’t had a narcissistic boss in decades but I sure see them around me. In fact, since I first wrote about narcissism, I’ve suddenly started to see them everywhere. Speaking engagements, workshops and parties, they are ubiquitous. How can you tell them? They do all the talking and very little listening. They are always right as well.
So here are the secrets to dealing with your narcissistic boss:
1. Do not complain to others. I know misery loves company but a narcissist is paranoid. Really paranoid. She is on the hunt for any detractors. And detractors will not be tolerated. Whether it’s texting or email or hushed voices by the water cooler, assume that the narcissist boss is omniscient. If there is a way to find out gossip about their carefully crafted image, they will find a way and there will be consequences.
2. Do not be friends. As Susan Price wrote for IvyExec, “Narcissists lack empathy, so they are not capable of true friendships. You might feel betrayed if you think you are becoming friends with one only to find they act without your interests in mind. If they are friendly to you, it is because they want something, whether your attention, your ideas, or anything else.” I have been personally burned by this several times in my career. I’ve had narcissists promise me the moon in my career only to find them to be completely empty. There is only one person they care about and that is themselves.
3. Keep your guard up. I know this can be exhausting. Constantly being vigilant for any sign of backstabbing or manipulation can take a lot of energy. Set boundaries and do not cross them. As Jacquelyn Smith wrote for Business Insider, “Understand that winds change quickly, and you may get undercut at any time. You can record and document every conversation and keep every email trail, but the narcissist has the ability to think quickly and act differently. And you will never see it coming.” Don’t get blindsided. Stay vigilant.
4. Give them praise. I know this seems like brown nosing, and it is, but the narcissist’s image of themselves is paramount in their mind. As Price writes, “Always remember that everything is about her/him. So if your words and actions make her/him feel good, she/he will be far more tolerable than if she/he feels that you are doing something that attacks her/him such as undermining her/him authority or criticizing her/him. Narcissists want praise and acknowledgement, so be prepared to give it to them.” A little sugar goes a long way.
5. Protect their image by taking the blame. Another bitter pill which is why you probably need to look at #7. Falling on the sword or keeping facts under wraps so that the narcissist’s image is maintained can be soul crushing. As Price posits, “Narcissists don’t take responsibility for anything negative, whether it is a bad culture in the office or declining revenues. It has to be someone else’s fault.” Scan the office for any detrimental indicators and proactively put them to bed.
6. Don’t compete with them. Narcissists are winners. They never lose. So don’t try and grab the limelight even if you worked 80 hours last week to get the project out the door. As Price writes, “Your boss will assume that you are doing good work because of what he taught you. Your award should be his; after all, you work for him, don’t you? You can’t win. Ever. So don’t play.” You are not opponents in a game, you are the support that helps them win.
7. Have an exit plan. I have a dear friend who was under the thumb of a narcissistic boss for upwards of three years. After empty promises and grueling months of 80 plus hour thankless work weeks, he started searching for his next job. So have a financial plan, keep your life in balance (don’t take this out on your family) and update your resume. There may be other opportunities in the organization. If you are not up to #1 through #6? Exiting gracefully is the best option. And don’t hesitate to use a professional coach or a friend help you with the plan and the process. You need someone on your side.
I think it’s like marriage. I was married to a narcissist and thought I could change him. It’s not possible. You can’t expect to change a narcissist boss. You can have all the staff development days in an organization but narcissists just point the fingers at everyone else. All they see in the mirror is their own carefully crafted image.