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How to spot a narcissistic boss?

Many of us have been in work environments where we didn't necessarily thrive, but the impact a manager can have on you is unparalleled, and that's backed by data. According to The Workforce Institute research in 2023, 69% of employees say their manager has more impact on their mental health than their therapist or doctor- and it's equal to the impact of their partner.

A distinct management style stands out; you’ll recognize it immediately once you encounter it. Unfortunately, this style—characterized by narcissistic behavior—often has a profoundly negative impact on employees. I'll call it here "narcissistic boss" style.

My goal in writing this blog is to help you identify and understand this type of management. It’s common to blame ourselves, feel confused, and suffer a blow to our self-esteem when dealing with a narcissistic boss. My experiences and interactions with clients have led me to believe that once you recognize these patterns, you can detach yourself from them. This aspect is particularly crucial because how you respond can greatly influence your well-being, overall work satisfaction, and professional trajectory.

What Do I Mean by Narcissist?

In this context, it's about personality style, not a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Organizations spend a lot of time and energy on personality tests and discussing when someone is more analytical, creative, assertive, or flexible. However, it's not as acceptable to talk about a personality style that's the exact opposite of flexible—narcissistic. Yet, it's very likely that at some point, you will have a narcissistic boss.

How do you recognize it?

Narcissism is like a stew; it's not just one thing. Several ingredients need to be present at the same time, and we need to be close to them to unfortunately experience these ingredients (e.g., manager, sibling, parent, significant other, etc.):

  • Lack of empathy for you personally, especially behind closed doors: Narcissistic bosses might show performative empathy when someone is watching or when they want something, but emotional empathy is absent. They casually disregard your feelings and needs, and you slowly feel uncomfortable expressing them. You don't feel like they see you as a person but more as an extension to accomplish their agenda.

    • For instance, if you express concerns about your workload, they might dismiss it by saying, "Everyone is busy; just deal with it."

    • In general, if you express any concerns, they might question your commitment to the job, or they might question your competencies

    • When you achieve a significant milestone, they may downplay your success, attributing it to luck or minimal effort rather than recognizing your hard work.

    • In meetings, they might interrupt you frequently or ignore your contributions, showing little regard for your input and making you feel invisible.

    • During performance reviews, they may focus solely on minor criticisms while ignoring your accomplishments, making you feel undervalued and demoralized.

  • Wearing Masks: Narcissistic bosses often wear masks, presenting a polished facade to HR, upper leadership, and the public. They adeptly use buzzwords like psychological safety, authenticity, and empathy to create an illusion of a supportive work environment. However, behind closed doors, they exhibit contradictory behaviors that foster a hostile atmosphere. This dual persona can create confusion and disillusionment among employees as they experience firsthand the stark contrast between proclaimed values and actual practices.

  • Hierarchy-driven: These managers are highly focused on hierarchy, managing up and disregarding those below them. They see people's worth based on their titles and cannot relate to others as equals. This often leads to a toxic work culture where only those who are seen as important by the narcissistic boss get attention and opportunities, while others are marginalized. This extends to creating a toxic hierarchy within the team. Someone might be the golden child one day and the scapegoat the next, depending on how much they agree with the boss or how well they execute tasks. This constant shifting creates an unstable and stressful work environment where employees are pitted against each other.

  • Exploiting Vulnerability: Narcissistic bosses are adept at exploiting vulnerabilities shared in confidence. If you confide in them or show vulnerability, they may weaponize this information to undermine you or gain leverage. This manipulation can range from using personal challenges against you in professional settings to subtly eroding your credibility or perceived competence. It's crucial to be cautious about what you disclose and to whom, especially in environments where trust is selectively applied for strategic advantage rather than genuine support.

  • Calling them out makes things worse: Narcissistic bosses are extremely sensitive to any criticism. While feedback is a norm in most organizations, providing feedback to a narcissistic boss can trigger their shame, which they convert into blaming you for bringing it up. They may punish you afterward by excluding you, withholding opportunities, or negatively impacting your performance reviews.

  • Walking on eggshells: A narcissistic boss fosters an environment where raising concerns or taking risks is viewed as a threat to their need to always "win," which is unacceptable to them. This results in a pervasive sense of caution among employees, who go to great lengths to avoid upsetting the boss. Challenging the status quo can lead to being scapegoated, so employees generally avoid speaking the truth. Instead, there is a tendency to appease the boss, as this behavior often leads to more favorable treatment and positions.

  • Entitlement demonstrated by double standards: These bosses believe they can break the rules for which others would face accountability. They feel entitled to special treatment and privileges. For instance, they might consistently arrive late to meetings or deadlines without consequences while enforcing strict punctuality on their team members.

  • Taking credit for other people's work: Narcissistic bosses love to take credit for the team's efforts. They present your ideas and accomplishments as their own to upper management. This demotivates employees and stifles creativity and innovation as team members feel undervalued and unrecognized.

  • Lack of collaboration: A narcissistic boss views interactions as a zero-sum game: it's all about winning or losing. They are not collaborative or team players unless they are being observed and can claim credit for the results. This mindset makes true collaboration difficult, as their actions are not aligned with team-oriented goals. In meetings, they will often steamroll others to get what they want, disregarding input and stifling productive discussion.

  • Withholding information: Narcissistic bosses often keep their subordinates in the dark by withholding crucial information. This impacts your ability to perform your job effectively and keeps you dependent on them. For example, they might not share important project updates or strategic changes, leaving you unprepared and constantly guessing.

  • You live in a confusion fog: If you are on their bad side, you doubt your performance as goalposts keep moving. Your self-esteem drops, and you experience anxiety and dread going to work. This constant state of uncertainty can lead to significant stress and burnout.

  • This is not a complete list, but it covers some major patterns.

If you find yourself navigating a work environment with a narcissistic boss, know that you're not alone. Recognizing these behaviors is the first step towards regaining control over your well-being and professional growth. As a professional coach specializing in workplace dynamics, I can help. Together, we can strategize effective ways to cope with challenging situations, reclaim your confidence, and explore options for moving forward. Don't hesitate to reach out for a consultation to discuss how to navigate environments impacted by narcissistic behaviors.

Dragan Mitric

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