Ask Avery: How Do I Deal With a Narcissistic Boss?
CB is excited to launch a new work-advice column, Ask Avery, featuring Avery Francis, founder of workplace design consultancy Bloom. Each month, Francis will answer reader questions on topics that affect our ability to thrive in our jobs, and she’ll offer her real-world insights on how to handle even the most rock-and-a-hard-place conundrums. Have a work-related question? Send it to [email protected] with the subject line “Ask Avery.”
Many of us have been there: Working under a boss who seemingly cares more about their own reputation and success than the well-being of their staff. Narcissism is a topic in the zeitgeist right now—likely because working from home has given many people the distance to assess what was making them dread going into the office every day, and abetted in large part by platforms like TikTok, YouTube and Instagram where everyone from therapists to influencers are sharing their experiences. But after the catharsis of going down a social-media rabbit hole on the topic, how do you actually deal with a narcissistic boss?
It’s a tough one. A narcissistic boss can cause serious harm to employees’ well-being and make everyday tasks feel exhausting. Their behaviour is a far cry from what a good manager or boss should demonstrate—empowering individuals to deliver on company objectives while feeling supported at work—and their toxicity can be detrimental in myriad ways.
As an HR and workplace design consultant, I’ve encountered a lot of narcissistic bosses through my work. Recently, a peer came to me expressing frustration that her manager kept taking credit for her work. When I asked more about the situation, my peer began to open up about the range of experiences she endured. At first, it was small things, like her boss speaking over her in meetings, telling her everything was “urgent” and putting down her ideas in front of other team members. It escalated to taking full credit for projects she had worked on for months.
After holding space for her to unpack her experiences, I told her I thought we were dealing with a narcissistic boss. We strategized about how she could advocate for herself and make her boss aware of the impact their actions were having on her. Ultimately, my peer opted to invest her energy in applying for new opportunities, and left her workplace for a healthier environment.
When it comes down to it, it’s simply not possible to thrive when you have a leader with narcissistic traits. Managers displaying these tendencies won’t empower their staff, they may take credit for their work and they can also deliberately harm their careers if they feel threatened that their direct reports are outshining them.
That’s why, in general, my advice is to leave a toxic workplace if that’s feasible for you—whether that’s changing companies altogether or seeking a new boss within the same organization. But if it’s not possible, or if you need to bide time while you figure out next steps, here are some ways you can manage a narcissistic boss.
Spot the signs of a narcissistic boss
While your job isn’t to be your boss’s therapist or diagnose them with narcissistic personality disorder, it can be helpful to recognize the signs of narcissism as they pertain to the dynamics at your job. Some of the most common characteristics of narcissists include:
A sense of entitlement
This stems from a belief that they are superior to everyone, or that they deserve to be treated in a special way. Narcissists have an exaggerated sense of self and often a big ego. In the workplace, they are quick to take credit for others’ successes, feeling like it belongs to them.
Narcissists can be master manipulators and use emotional displays or tactics like shame, guilt or gaslighting to get what they want from others. An example of what this may look like in the workplace? You tell your boss that you’re having a conflict with a colleague, and they reply that it can’t be true because they always get along with them. In other words, a narcissistic boss can make you feel like you’re wrong—even if there’s evidence to support your experience.
Need for admiration
This goes hand-in-hand with a sense of entitlement. A need for admiration can result in a narcissistic boss exaggerating their professional accomplishments, or claiming a larger stake in a team project than they actually deserve.
Lack of empathy
Part of being a good leader is helping employees navigate difficult emotions in the workplace. But narcissistic bosses will often fail to display empathy—especially if someone else’s tragedy removes the spotlight from them.
Because a toxic boss thinks they are superior, they are often rude or dismissive of other people and their work. This can make employees feel nervous to share their ideas or speak up in meetings if they fear they will be unfairly criticized.
What to do if you can’t leave your job
I’m not alone in my opinion that narcissists are hard to deal with. Research shows that working under a narcissistic boss has harmful effects on employee well-being, and narcissists rarely change their ways—if ever. Quitting may not always be possible, so if you can’t leave your job or need time while job hunting, here are five ways to deal with a narcissistic boss:
A toxic leader can be manipulative, so it’s best not to share personal information or get emotional when dealing with them; they may turn reactions or situations against you. Keep your interactions strictly professional.
Calmly, politely and clearly state what behaviors you will not tolerate from your boss (for instance, name calling or being yelled at). This will help you vocalize the type of expectations you have for appropriate workplace behaviour, which is important since narcissists often don’t think the rules apply to them.
Narcissists will often deny they said or promised things in order to hold power over you, or make themselves look good by comparison. If you document everything—conversations, phone calls, online messages—you have evidence to support you if necessary. It’s also wise to follow-up on verbal conversations with an email highlighting what you and your boss just discussed.
Narcissistic bosses can sometimes evade detection from a company’s higher-ups. That’s why it’s important to seek support so you’re not dealing with a problem on your own. Whether it’s HR, a trusted friend, a coach or advisor, having a third party can help you manage emotions and strategize context-specific actions.
Treat them like anyone else
Pay a compliment where it’s earned (even narcissists can come up with good ideas), but don’t go to an excessive level in the hopes of assuaging them, as unfortunately, that won’t work.
Ultimately, learning how to deal with a narcissistic boss is about prioritizing your career progression and peace of mind. While I don’t think anyone can truly thrive under a boss like this, taking positive action can help you make the present as manageable as possible while you figure out your next step. And, it will also give you the skills to spot these characteristics should you come across them again.