So, you think your boss is a narcissist.
Narcissism exists on a spectrum, and everyone lands somewhere along that line, says Ryan Fehr, an organizational psychologist at the University of Washington who studies ethics and leadership.
While some people are more narcissistic than others, the vast majority of folks do not meet the threshold to be diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder (only 0.5% of the general U.S. population do).
Still, your boss can be narcissistic even if they don’t have a narcissistic personality disorder. (In fact, some research suggests corporate workplaces over select individuals with narcissistic traits to fill leadership roles.)
Meaning, if you’re wondering if your boss is narcissistic, the answer is: maybe? And perhaps more importantly, there are ways to mitigate the harm caused by narcissistic behaviors and prevent a selfish boss from wreaking havoc on your work life.
What are signs your boss is narcissistic?
Think of narcissism as an overarching trait with some telltale behaviors and tendencies.
“Narcissism is defined in research as an inflated sense of grandiosity, or an inflated sense of yourself and your capabilities. It’s also about a preoccupation with reinforcing those inflated self-views by whatever means necessary,” Fehr says.
Basically, narcissists think extremely highly of themselves and will do whatever they can to uphold these views. This typically shows up as either seeking admiration from others or making other people their rivals and tearing them down to feel superior.
How do you spot a narcissist in the wild, you ask?
Narcissists tend to be charismatic, motivated by positive praise and intent on demonstrating or discussing their strengths, Fehr says. They won’t admit when they make mistakes (an indicator of narcissism versus self-confidence) and will often take charge and use personal or organizational resources to bring themselves glory. Narcissists also have a low tolerance for criticism of their capabilities and act out when they feel their self-image is threatened.
How does narcissism affect workplace culture?
If you’re reading this article, it likely won’t come as a shock that narcissism dampers workplace culture and well-being.
“It’s difficult to work with narcissists because, unsurprisingly, they tend to act in very self-focused ways,” Fehr says. “This inhibits the development of high-quality connections because narcissists act in relationally destructive ways when they feel threatened.”
This might look like a boss taking credit for the work of someone on their team or having an outburst and berating someone who disagrees with them. When a person behaves this way, it makes it harder to have meaningful social connections or feel like you can take risks or grow at work.
“One of the biggest determinants of someone enjoying their work is if they enjoy the people they work with. If you work with a terrible boss, you’re unlikely to enjoy your job,” Fehr says.
Narcissistic bosses and leaders can be particularly harmful to workplace culture because of the influence they have. One study from the University of Washington found when narcissistic leaders model self-interested behaviors, they can influence workplace norms and reduce helping behaviors between co-workers.
In other words, narcissistic leaders not only seek out their own glory at the expense of others, but they can also create a culture where entire teams are focused on individual self-interest instead of collaboration.
What can you do if you have a narcissistic boss?
Dream job, horrible boss? You don’t have to quit to find some peace. Fehr shares how to work with (or for) someone who is narcissistic.
- Broaden your network. Ask yourself what you would ideally be getting from your relationship with your boss and find other places to get those resources, be it mentorship, opportunities or social support. This might mean connecting with your boss’ boss for career guidance, a professional organization for learning opportunities or co-workers for friendship and connection.
- Keep interactions short and sweet. This is called the BIFF method, where you try to keep interactions with a narcissist brief, informative, friendly and firm. This means responding in just a couple sentences, without getting defensive or even acknowledging hostile statements, and being warm while remaining factual (versus emotional). The idea is to acknowledge that you have to work with the person while limiting your interactions and maintaining boundaries (i.e., not saying things that will prolong or inflame conversations).
- Avoid their triggers. It sucks to have to tiptoe around a narcissistic boss but being mindful of what causes their outbursts can help you maintain your own well-being. For narcissists, anything that threatens their self-image can instigate retaliatory behavior. Knowing this can help you adjust, such as providing a critique of their work sandwich-style (couching constructive criticism between positive feedback).
- Appeal to their goals. Similarly, understanding what drives a narcissist’s behavior can help you frame requests in a more effective way. If you need them to consult on a project, you can present your request as a chance for them to share their expertise, appealing to their self-worth in order to meet your needs for collaboration.
- Practice self-care. Navigating interactions with a narcissist is stressful. Be sure to check in with yourself to see if there’s anything you need, such as a walk to decompress or a chance to share your feelings with loved ones. This will help prevent burnout and ensures you are also prioritizing your own well-being.