😎7 Secrets to Dealing with a Narcissistic Boss

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.

Gotcha Management

This is the first cousin to the Tyrant and leads to pointing fingers and silo building.  It’s the story of the boss who pulls the rug out from under her team to point out all their flaws. It’s when the status quo is suddenly way too low and she’s going to make sure you are shown the error of your ways.  It’s kind of like, if suddenly cops actually started pulling you over for driving 60 miles an hour in a 55 speed zone.  You’re saying to yourself, “Really?  It’s only 5 miles over the speed limit.  I’ve been driving like this for 30 years and now you’re going to start issuing tickets?” Gotcha Management

The Gotcha boss feels emboldened because they have “such high standards”.  She feels like she’s really calling the shots and making folks tow-the-line.  In the meantime, her team is living in fear and not producing.  They are constantly struggling to CYA and quickly pointing the finger at the rest of the team members so that everyone else ends up low person on the totem pole.  All the other bosses start building up their silos so that the fingers don’t start getting pointed in their direction.  Ah yes.  There is safety with a thick, high wall between departments.

So what do you do if you are unfortunate enough to report to such a boss?  Here are some tips:

1. Open.  Keep open communication.  If your boss is always busy and won’t make time for you, send an email.  Subject line: Can we meet for ten minutes on the following?  In the body of the email: list the bullet points of what you’d like to discuss.  This gives your boss a heads up as to what the discussion is about.  They get to prepare (if they need to) and don’t feel blindsided when you finally get the meeting.  If your boss isn’t defensive, the communication will be more effective.  Keep communication channels open.

2. Solution Focus.  Don’t dwell on the details and drama.  When you bring an issue to your boss, bring the solution with you.   It’s best to bring three options.  Three?  Well, the first option is easy, the status quo.  Option one is to keep on doing what we are doing: “Let’s keep the budget sequence the same and live with some being turned in late”.  Option two is your desired outcome: “Let’s move up the deadline by two weeks and I’ll be responsible for following up with late comers”.  Option three can be a stretch or your best case scenario but you’re not sure the boss will go for it: “Let’s schedule a meeting one week before the deadline to go over everyone’s budget which will reinforce completing it on time”.  When there are three solutions, your boss won’t feel like it’s an ultimatum and will feel more in control.  Focus on the solutions.

3.  Sword.  You might need to fall on the sword.   Take responsibility for your part in the mess. “Boss, I didn’t follow up on those budget reports the way I should have.  It’s my fault that 50% missed the deadline.”  This might ensure that the rest of the team isn’t blind-sided and it should built authenticity if not trust with your boss.  I’m not saying that there isn’t a slice of the boss population out there that might abuse this but, if that’s the case; it might be time to update your resume.  In the meantime, fall on the sword.

4. Optimism.  Stay optimistic.  Focus on what is working.  It might be that we aren’t losing as much money as we did last year or that sales are flat but we aren’t losing ground.  It might be that you’ve retained your customer base or that your employee turnover rate is holding steady.  Find some nugget of good and emphasize the positive. As I have pointed out in previous posts, staying positive is the best for your brain and build better, stronger pathways to solutions.  Be optimistic.

5. Spine.  You’re gonna need a backbone.  Don’t cave if it’s something you believe in.  Explain the rationale in your thinking to your Gotcha boss.  If she can’t point out some flaws in your thinking, then remain steadfast.  Sometimes you just need to go with your gut and stand up for what you believe in.  If the boss doesn’t back you, work on your Linkedin profile and plan your escape.  Have a backbone.

These tips can help those of you who need a strategy to improve your relationship with your boss.  Some strategies won’t work.  Many years ago I worked for a boss who didn’t have my back and I was put in a precarious ethical situation with the corporate office.  I planned my escape and got out.  All the advice in the world isn’t going to fix an unethical situation.  Some Gotcha bosses can be turned around if you give it a try.