Yet Another Management Challenge: Coping With the Narcissistic Boss

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Of all the offensive managerial types, the narcissist has got to be one of the worst.

For our purposes, the term “narcissist” does NOT refer to those with narcissistic personality disorder (although God knows you don’t want someone with this diagnosis in your workplace). Instead, we’ll be talking about your garden-variety but nonetheless dangerous self-serving and self-loving boss.

That’s enough bad news for one day.

Hallmarks of the narcissistic boss

Narcissistic bosses believe the world would be a much better place if everyone were just like them.

Employees toiling under these self-centered tyrants quickly begin to feel stifled, demoralized, and unappreciated. And no wonder. Each of us is a unique human being with a distinctive personality, temperament, and worldview. It doesn’t feel good when someone attempts to suppress our wills by imposing theirs.

Also, narcissists tend to be sneaky little so-and-sos. They’ll pretend to be “nice” when it suits their purposes, but when it doesn’t watch out! Naturally, their employees receive the brunt of their malice.

What’s more, narcissistic bosses set people up for failure. Demands are communicated haphazardly and with a near total lack of transparency. Data without context is a specialty; narcissists are crazy tight-fisted with information. The poor soul responsible for pleasing an implacable narcissist often finds him- or herself in a damned if you do/damned if you don’t position.

It’s a puzzle. How can someone provide so much detail (these folks are micromanagers for sure) and still be so terrible at communicating what they want?

Yes, they’re “difficult,” too

But perhaps worst of all, narcissists have no sense of humor about themselves. Zilch. Zippo. Nil. As such, they are prickly, oversensitive to criticism, and dishonest (“Admit a mistake? Hell no. I’ll just pretend you misunderstood or blame someone else …”).

They are, in a word, “difficult” to work with. Not that they actually care to work with anyone. Narcissists are the ultimate non-team playing players.

In a nutshell, narcissistic bosses are:

  • Emotionally shallow;
  • Lacking in empathy;
  • Ridiculously self-absorbed;
  • Envious; and,
  • Untrustworthy.

But, narcissists have two things in their favor:

  1. They’re great at sucking up to those they deem important; and,
  2. They’re completely shameless and will do most anything to meet their dastardly goals. As a result, they’re talented at catching the rest of us off guard and unprepared to deal with someone whom we couldn’t fathom would do that.

Handling the narcissistic manager

First, accept that you must do something, because inaction is not a responsible option. Narcissists are toxic to teams, partly because they’re envious and will deliberately sabotage others’ success and partly because they annoy the heck out of people.

Second, if the narcissist is someone you hired, admit this wasn’t your best decision and move on. Pretending that nothing is wrong will only compound the problem.

Third, let your ethics be your guide. We often know the right thing to do but talk ourselves out of doing it to avoid inconvenience, embarrassment, shame, or some other perceived loss. Please don’t do that now. Whatever circle of influence your narcissistic employee has, he or she is probably using it for no good—or more to the point, no one else’s good.

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Fourth, don’t be fooled. Narcissists care very little for you or your company goals, no matter what they say to the contrary.

Fifth, listen. If you have a narcissist in your workplace, you’ll know it, because he or she is forever ruffling somebody’s feathers. Interpersonal conflict and narcissists are like salt and pepper—where one is you can usually find the other. A real tale-tell sign? When you start to listen, you’ll begin to hear from people who typically don’t butt heads with anyone.

Sixth, hope for rehabilitation, but prepare for separation. The challenge of managing interpersonal conflict is that everyone has a point of view. So be doubly careful when disciplining a narcissist. Document everything. Provide reasonable chances. Exercise compassion but be firm. One bad apple shouldn’t be allowed to spoil your barrel.

You can do better

Don’t believe the hype of the brilliant, narcissist boss who drives his people to wild heights of success with his unwavering commitment to innovation and excellence (think Steve Jobs, or at least what people say about Steve Jobs.)

That’s crap. Most narcissistic bosses are average-performing little despots skilled at smoke and mirrors. If they won’t do better, I guarantee you can.

Crystal Spraggins

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.