When I first worked for a narcissistic boss, their destructive tendencies came as a shock. It was a struggle to learn how to work with them, but I was eventually able to succeed in that business, and make my way to a better work environment. These are the three techniques that I used to overcome toxic leadership.
Narcissistic bosses are overcome by staying out of their way, enactig a plan to protect yourself from their wrath, and possibly making a plan to exit their organization. Understating how narcissists function is essential to succeeding under their leadership.
Narcissistic bosses pervade corporate and business culture. With researchers at Stanford and Berkeley have shown that narcissistic leaders receive higher compensation than their peers, it is very likely that you will continue to work under narcissistic bosses. So, learning how to deal with them is a must. Here are three methods of overcoming a toxic boss.
The “Grey Rock” Method for Overcoming Narcissist Bosses
This first method is the easiest to enact, and should probably be the go to method for people really struggling with a toxic work environment lead by a narcissistic boss.
Not sure if you boss is really a narcissist? Check out this article —
The crux of this method is to blend in with the scenery, and not do anything to trigger the narcissist’s hyper-emotional personality traits. To make this work, you need to —
- Speak in an unemotional, neutral voice
- Give short, non-committal answers to their questions
- Talk only about bland, boring, or inconsequential topics in their presence
- Don’t make eye contact with the narcissist
- Don’t give away any personal information: likes, dislikes, personal interests
Avoid Behavior That Attracts Their Attention
When using this method, it is important to be subtle about how you employ it.
If the narcissist already knows you, don’t just suddenly change your personality in a way that attracts their attention. Instead, gradually tone down your energy in front of them.
The strength of this method is that narcissists or emotionally driven, and that by making yourself a boring target, they won’t be compelled to interact with you.
Downsides of This Method
While there is some evidence that narcissists don’t necessarily promote narcissists more than others, it is pretty clear that by taking yourself off narcissistic leadership’s radar, you may negatively impact your potential for professional advancement and promotion in the organization.
The CYA Method for Overcoming Toxic Leadership
This next method is perfect for people that need to advance within a narcissist lead business or organization. Staying out of their way entirely won’t be a successful strategy here, because you need their help to advance. To succeed under a narcissistic boss, you need to get them on your side.
Here are 10 ways to stay visible to a narcissistic boss, while still protecting yourself professionally —
Make the Narcissist Look Good
The number one subconscious goal of every narcissist is to protect their ego by making themselves look good. Narcissism comes from a psychological need for external validation, so if you provide that to them, the narcissistic boss will look favorably on you.
As their employee, this could include —
- Going above and beyond what is necessary
- Crediting their leadership in visible ways
- Not bad mouthing them to colleges
- Become indispensable to them
While this all may seem like just sound professional advice, it is very important to note that all of them are even more important with a narcissist boss than normal.
Narcissists tend to live in a drama the write for themselves, and where they are cast as the here. In their story, you can either be a hero or a villain — there is usually no middle ground — so make sure you are the hero in the narcissist’s story.
Be Extremely Good At What They Find Important
If you are resigned to making your time under a narcissistic boss successful, then you will have to be committed to excelling at doing the job their way. And, you will have astutely avoid their “deal breakers.”
Narcissists often focus on particular aspects of the job or professional traits above all others. Know that these traits are and focus on them too.
Honestly, from my experience, these traits can often seem petty or just plain silly to the employee. In one job, I had a narcissistic boss who prided himself on ending phone calls in 2 minutes or less, no matter how important. So, being quick on the phone myself made me a super star in his eyes.
The funny thing, is that narcissists don’t necessarily embody the values that they hold dear. Narcissists have a fundamental disconnect between what they say about themselves, and how they feel about themselves, to this incongruence is to be expected. In my example, my boss actually spent more time on the phone with single clients than his employees did. But, he saw this as his privilege.
Unfortunately, following the whims of the narcissistic boss may not make you an objectively better professional, and may actually make you worse. So it is essential that you identify to yourself, constantly, that you are doing X specifically to impress the boss, and do your best to not internalize this behavior. But, this is one argument for getting out of narcissist run organizations altogether.
Actively Avoid Their Narcissist Trigger Points
There are many emotional situations that narcissists are constitutionally unable to cope with. When you have a narcissistic boss, it is absolutely essential that you avoid these situations whenever possible.
Things that may trigger a narcissistic boss are —
- Direct confrontation
- Insubordination of any kind
- Critique or judgment (even with good intent)
Avoiding these situations may involve carefully watching the way that you speak to or about the boss. Rumors about what you think of the boss may even be worse than direct confrontation, if the reach the narcissist in the right way.
In some business situations, the may be specific assignments, tasks, or meeting that you will need to avoid in order to steer clear of confrontational situations.
Failing to avoid a negative association in the mind of the narcissist usually means that all the positive emotions they previously held about you are instantly wiped out. Working under a narcissistic boss is like walking a tight rope, going too far in any direct can lead to a sudden fall.
Stay Focused On Your Goals
One of the trickiest part about working under a narcissistic boss is keeping a separation between your needs and their wants.
In order to make a positive impression with the narcissist, you end up having to entertain their need for validation, and self-centered desires. If this goes to far, you lose sight of your own goals and desire for professional attainment.
Developing a clear list of goals and criteria for working in this situation is a must. Active goal setting, as a professional tool, allows you to keep grounded, and make effective decisions regarding when you need to go with the boss, as a stepping stone to get ahead, and when it is time to make a change.
Set and Enforce Personal Boundaries
As a professional, there is no substitute for rigorously defining and vigilantly following a personal code of conduct. On benefit of working for a narcissist is that they will constantly test your boundaries, giving you opportunities to clarify your own moral lines and develop a robust ethic.
Setting boundaries means identifying to yourself exactly where the line between the following are —
- Legal and illegal
- Moral and immoral
- Professional and unprofessional
Even military soldiers are required to evaluate the ethics of the orders they follow, and will be legally prosecuted if they follow “unlawful orders.” As a professional working under a narcissist, you will have to have the same mindset, or risk being held account for your actions.
However, setting boundaries doesn’t mean going to your bosses office and instituting demands. In order to not burn your bridges, when you see that your boss is crossing your boundaries, or asking you to cross them, then you will need to be creative about how you handle the situation.
First, do not comply with instructions that are immoral. However, frame you actions in a way that makes it a victory for the narcissist, rather than insubordination. If all else fails, and you get called out for refusing to comply, then you may have to accept it as a failing your your part. Placing blame back on the boss is likely to have worse consequences for you, than publicly accepting that you just weren’t good enough to live up to the bosses demands. Especially, if it makes the boss look good by comparison.
Keep An Independent Record of Your Accomplishments
Take the time to document and record your accomplishments in a way independent of your narcissistic boss.
If worse comes to worse, you may need to provide your competency to higher-ups in the organization. And, if you only rely on the performance evaluations of your boss, you may be in for a rude surprise.
Objective measures of success are the ultimate weapon for defeating the excessive emotions of the narcissist. Although, it is very important that you do not let the narcissist know that you are keeping records, if at all possible, because they are likely to see that as a threat.
The Quick Exit Strategy for Escaping Narcissistic Workplaces
Eventually, everyone working under a narcissistic boss will need an effective exit strategy. But, for some people they will choose to exit right away.
So, depending on the trajectory of the company, you may decide that it is better to get out sooner rather than later.
Offending a narcissist is never a good idea, as they can come back to haunt you in unexpected ways. Here are a few tips on leaving a narcissist run job without burning bridges —
- Have a positive explanation for why you are leaving, preferably one that also casts the narcissist in a heroic light
- Don’t be too excited about leaving
- Ask the narcissist for a recommendation or job advice, even if you don’t intend to use it (unless you are making a stealthy exit)
- Be vigilant about not making any mistakes in your remaining time with the company
- Retain records of your work and accomplishments with the company even after you leave, if ethical in your industry
- Maintain friendly contact with coworkers from the company after you leave, who might be able to speak positively on your behalf
- Be unemotional and business like when giving notice or announcing your exit
Avoiding Narcissistic Employers
While this could be a whole article on it’s own, when leaving a narcissistic boss, it is a good idea to take steps to avoid falling in the same trap again.
The best way to avoid a narcissistic boss is to observe them closely during interviews. And, to ask potential coworkers about the boss in confidence.
When you are being interview for a job, remember that you are interviewing the bosses also. And, if at all possible, ask to speak with your potential boss and coworkers before you accept the job.
Here are more details on how to spot a narcissist during these meetings —
- Tell-Tale Signs of a Covert Narcissist | A Fool Proof Test
- What It Really Means to Be a Narcissist | A Bystander’s Perspective
How do you deal with a narcissistic leader?
Employees of narcissistic bosses should take care to learn and avoid their psychological triggers, and will have to avoid confrontational situations. In some cases, employees may need to assume a lower profile. Or, resolve to leave the company quickly without burning bridges.
Can narcissists be good leaders?
While narcissists are likely to be promoted and receive higher compensation in leadership roles, current research suggests that narcissists have long term negative impacts on organizations that reduces an organization’s effectiveness. However, narcissistic leaders can produce short term gains in some situations.