Recent events have made it difficult to deny we now live in an America where unabashed narcissism is rewarded everywhere we look. From Donald Trump’s Twitter rants to Greg Gianforte’s assault on an innocent journalist, it seems people no longer believe the rules apply to them and it’s ok to be a bully.
Does it seem that narcissism has not only taken over the oval office, but is now beginning to dominate your own workplace? If so, you are not alone. Increasing rates of narcissism are forcing many to deal with the reality of the narcissist at work.
Working with a narcissistic colleague is confusing. Working for a narcissistic boss is not only confusing, but can be emotionally draining and debilitating. For purposes of this article, I will focus on how to survive a narcissistic boss since the nature of each relationship impacts how one should respond. In my upcoming book, “Surviving the Narcissist at Work,” I will explore the different types of narcissistic relationships you may experience in the workplace and how best to manage each to maintain your sanity and reach the outcome you desire.
When dealing with a narcissist, it is critical to understand what drives their behavior. Many mistakenly believe that narcissists are overly confident and feel superior to others. While this is certainly the image they present, quite the opposite is true. Narcissists project a puffed-up ego to overcompensate for a very insecure ego which requires constant attention and stroking from others. Someone who is secure in themselves does not require others to validate them. Narcissists on the other hand are so disconnected from themselves that without constant validation from others, they feel dead inside.
Therefore, if you’re working for a narcissist I recommend the following strategies:
1) Stroke their ego
While this can be difficult, it is essential to keeping your job. If you do not act as though your boss is the most influential person in the company and hang on his/her every word, you will begin to feel the wrath of the narcissistic boss. The moment you stop paying them enough attention, you will notice how hard they come down on you. You may think it’s coming from nowhere because you have been performing your job well, but once you understand that constant attention is what keeps the narcissist happy, you can adjust your behavior accordingly. One’s work performance could be sub-par, but as long as they are constantly stroking the narcissist’s ego, they will remain in their good graces.
2) Avoid a showdown
I do not recommend taking a narcissist on in front of others, especially if they are your boss. Even if you are right and all facts point to it, do not contradict the narcissistic boss. Image is everything to a narcissist and if you do contradict him/her in front of others, you will experience their intense rage. Narcissists are impulsive and cannot control their anger. As an HR professional, I’ve often been part of the conversation after an unstable narcissistic boss abruptly terminated an employee. Regardless of whether they had approval to do it, the fact is it’s been done and the company typically responds by carrying out the employment decision. To do anything different is a sign of vulnerability and poor leadership.
3) Make them think it’s their idea
A narcissist lives in a delusional world of their own creation. As long as what you suggest corresponds with their grandiose image of themselves, they will go along with it. Therefore, in order to persuade your narcissistic boss to implement any kind of policy or process, you must find a way to make them believe it was their idea in the first place. This is often the only way to get things done when working with a narcissist. I’m sure it goes without saying that a narcissist insists they are always right and has no problem taking credit for your work as well.
4) Make everything about them
Unfortunately, a narcissist never developed the feelings that make us uniquely human. They operate in a fight or flight mode that was useful to primates, but does not work well in today’s modern world. They only experience two emotions - anger and fear. Their arrested development denied them the ability to feel more complex emotions like empathy and compassion. They don’t experience these emotions as we do. Therefore, never appeal to your narcissistic boss’s compassionate side because they do not have one. Furthermore, they are envious of those who do feel real emotions and they will be furious with you for suggesting they have empathy for others. Instead, when trying to persuade your narcissistic boss to do the right thing or make an employment decision that will benefit others, make it about them and no one else. Tell them that if they implement your suggestion, they will look like a rock star and everyone will love them.
5) Exercise power through your response
The secret to staying sane in a narcissistic workplace is to remember that while you cannot control what is happening around you, you can control how you respond to it. Therein lies your power – your response. It is critical to maintain your composure when confronted by the narcissist at work. A narcissist is sadistic and enjoys making people squirm. While you may do everything you can to avoid a showdown with a narcissist, they often will insist upon creating a scenario in which they verbally assault you and belittle you in front of others. Their hope is that you will break down and cry or completely lose it. However, when you learn to exercise power through your response and maintain your composure, you ensure the spotlight remains where it should be - on the narcissist’s crazy-making behavior – not on you. The narcissist is counting on you to lose it. When you respond to their rage calmly, they don’t know what to do and will most likely continue to bury themselves by ranting and raving even more.
6) Document everything
The workplace narcissist enjoys the sport of making you look bad in front of others by making false accusations they cannot back-up and lying about things you say or do. For this reason, it is critical in a workplace setting to document all of your interactions with a narcissist. As the NY Times reported recently, James Comey’s memos, which he took after every meeting he had with President Trump provide the “clearest evidence yet” that Trump tried to influence the government’s inquiry into possible links between his associates and Russia.
Rather than get frustrated and try to fight fire with fire, I recommend using the strategies above to diffuse the situation and prevent toxic behavior from hurting you or other members of your team. No one should have to work in an environment where hostile behavior is rewarded and in some cases, even celebrated. Please keep in mind, the tactics I offer are for those of you who are not ready to quit your job.
It may be helpful to know that many narcissists eventually self-destruct. It has become more and more difficult to hide abusive behavior in a world where employee’s voices can be heard by reporting concerns to HR, an Ethics hotline or even http://www.glassdoor.com. While it pains me to say it, I do agree with the common complaint that going to HR can be dangerous within some companies. If you do not believe you can trust your HR team, I highly recommend utilizing your company’s Ethic’s Hotline if they have one. You can report concerns anonymously there, and while change will not happen overnight, smart companies will begin to see an undeniable trend emerge they can no longer afford to ignore. If they don’t, I highly recommend beginning to look elsewhere because companies who condone one narcissistic leader will only propagate such behavior throughout the organization.