Not sure what the signs are of someone who might have a narcissistic personality disorder or extreme narcissistic tendencies? Please pause here first to read my blog post on the topic.
If you’re reading this and were drawn to the title, I imagine you’re dealing with issues related to a *boss who may be charming to their higher ups but manipulative and undermining to those reporting to them.
(*Note: I use the term boss as opposed to leader as I think there is a distinct difference between the two titles. A leader is someone who supports and encourages your professional development, and provides a safe environment for you to do your best work.)
First, let me share that the experience of working for a narcissist may cause you to feel helpless and powerless. These feelings are real and they need to be tended to with all the self-compassion you can muster. If you find yourself in a situation where you believe you’re being emotionally abused or misused by your boss, it is important to talk to someone you can trust including a confidential mental health professional.
Is Your Boss a Narcissist?
To avoid making this post a novella, I’ve highlighted only seven signs of narcissism you may be experiencing with your boss. If I haven’t listed a behaviour you’ve encountered, the most important point I can made is that if you feel you are beginning to doubt yourself, the quality of your work, your sense of self-worth, or your ability to feel safe, you’re in a negative environment that isn’t healthy for you. Please consider talking to someone you trust and who can help.
Signs that will help you determine if you’re working for a narcissist include:
- They don’t ask questions about you or seem at all interested in your life. In fact, chances are that when you start talking, they may cut you off and continue to pontificate about their talents and what they feel they are entitled to. Additionally, their stories and self-proclamations might be exaggerated as an overinflation of their self-absorption.
- They seek constant recognition and praise. You will find that they seek feedback from you only to validate their sense of self-importance. They appear to be super confident, but this constant need for praise is a sure sign of insecurity and vulnerability. The more you praise them, the more they will want it from you even if they have done nothing to warrant positive feedback. Feeding the praise monster will help you to stay on their good side in the short run but is not sustainable over time. In fact, you may be worried about how they will react if you stop offering up praise and you’re right to be concerned as the flip side is worse. With frail egos there is a tendency to react poorly to what they perceive as unsubstantiated criticism. So, who would want to spotlight their failings? No one who feels it is worth the risk of poking the bear. The problem with this scenario is that feedback becomes lopsided. And as the narcissist’s ego is fed, it only fuels their fantasies of greatness.
- They take advantage of you and of others. They have a way of manipulating people into doing what they want, and this can show up as convincing you to work extra hours or take on a project beyond your capacity. This is where the seeds of burnout are planted. When you feel pressured, manipulated, or gaslit, you may doubt yourself and feel ill-equipped to communicate your boundaries. It is a slippery slope.
- They will bad mouth others. They will gossip and talk about others as being envious of them. They may hold grudges and see any attempt at criticism as a personal attack. The narcissistic boss feels justified in believing they are superior and that it is okay to enact some form of retribution because others may be getting in the way of what they are entitled to have or to achieve. They may try to manipulate you into siding with them in ways that make you uncomfortable, could be unprofessional and potentially damaging to your career.
- They struggle to be empathetic. Because they are insecure and have low self-esteem, they have what I call “drowning person syndrome” in that they will pull you down without thinking that you may be risking your well-being in order to help them. They only see their goal in that their ambition and extreme sense of competition blindsides their ability to understand the consequences of their behaviour.
- They are unrealistically ambitious. In believing they are the best and deserve the best, they set boundless goals for themselves. In their single-minded pursuit, they manipulate others into helping them achieve their ambitions. If you don’t comply, they may become enraged and retaliate.
- They have all-or-nothing thinking. If you are a conduit for or useful to their pursuits, they may show you favouritism, but if you challenge them, then you are seen as a threat who needs to be bullied or gaslit until you conform and “see the light”. If you are viewed as a threat, you may be assigned a disproportionate amount of work, be micromanaged, or found at fault for situations beyond your scope of accountability.
Please take action to protect your mental and physical well-being especially if you find yourself struggling with sleep, have a low mood, feel heightened levels of anxiety, or notice pervasive negative automatic thoughts (e.g., low self-doubt or low self-esteem).
- Keep a journal and take notes. If you begin to doubt yourself and the facts as you know them, you may be experiencing bullying or gaslighting behaviour. Keep a paper trail with dates and times of your conversations, what you are asked to do, and the feedback you’ve been given. Also, keep a running list of your accomplishments and project milestones.
- Build your network. Avoid isolating yourself. Don’t let your professional brand become intermingled with that of your boss. Work on knowing your unique value proposition and make a point of networking with key contacts from your industry or professional association. Additionally, find a mentor who can offer support and who can represent you in a positive light even when your boss might try to drag your name through the mud.
- Keep your interactions brief. If you are able, keep your meetings with your boss brief and to the point. You want to avoid triggering an outburst. Try using the BIFF method – keep your encounters brief, informative, friendly, and firm.
- Seek professional help. Working for a narcissistic boss can feel like you’re consciously walking through a field of landmines every day. The fear of reprisal, the constant manipulation and ego-centric behaviour will take its’ toll on your well-being. This isn’t the time to try and go it alone. If you have an employee (and family) assistance program (EFAP) at work, call the confidential number to schedule your first counselling appointment. Mental health professionals such as social workers and psychotherapists are trained to help you through difficult relational challenges. If you don’t have a benefits program at work, there are community service agencies and private counselling clinics that offer reduced rates.
- Know your behavioural style. As noted in the suggested reading, you may be dealing with a boss who isn’t a narcissist, but rather someone with an over-inflated sense of self-importance. Knowing your behaviour styles especially when under pressure, may help you navigate how you adapt your communication style to meet your boss’s preferences. It helps to learn about personality types and behavioural self-assessments like DISC and MBTI. To learn more, please contact me at [email protected].
Be a sleuth, learn what makes your boss tick.
Avoid gossiping and keep your interactions with your boss BIFF.
Seek professional mental health support to sort through your feelings and to help you develop skills to protect your well-being.
And before you jump ship, carefully assess the advantages and disadvantages of staying in your job.