Help! My boss is a narcissist!

This post is part of the series Personality disorders

Other posts in this series:

  1. Personality disorders (Pd’s) and why we need to know about them
  2. Help! My girlfriend has Borderline Personality Disorder
  3. Help! My boss is a narcissist! (Current)

There are many arrogant, grandiose bosses. When I look at the CEO superstars, it seems as if success in many Western corporations requires some level of self-aggrandisement and ruthless ambition. That does not mean that every jerk boss is a narcissist. Narcissistic personality disorder is a diagnosable entity. Its salient features are a sense of deep entitlement and rage when this entitlement is not met.

A narcissistic boss who believes that you are not on their side will make your life a living hell. But it usually does not start at this point. The gift that dealing with personality disorders gives us is that it teaches us about ourselves. As we go through the process of trying to be reasonable and accommodating, of trying to fix things, we get broken down to the bare bones of who we are. How we respond forms us for the rest of our lives.

A relationship with a narcissistic boss often starts very well. They are charismatic and have vision. They are fearless and step into leadership voids. When you are new in your role, you might be very excited to have this opportunity. Here is someone who can lead, whom you can learn from, who can mentor you. You might even be a little in awe and adoring – the narcissist sets that up very effectively. In those early years (or weeks),  your boss can bring out the best in you. You are desperate for him to be impressed and you work super hard. When your boss talks to you, you feel as if you are the gifted one, the golden protege. You might hear murmurs of discontent from your colleagues, but you defend your boss’s position as king with conviction.

Then a funny thing happens. Your confidence and competence increase with all your hard work. You expect your boss to be pleased with your progress. After all, the stronger the team, the more effective the company or project, not so? Not so. What happens instead is that your boss becomes increasingly paranoid of you. Simple questions get perceived as challenges. You get publicly humiliated and taken down, often. Your boss rewrites history to blame you for his errors and take credit for your achievements. You try harder to get back into his good graces. But the harder you try, the more you are broken down. You have always loved your job, but now you dread Mondays and think of leaving.

Or perhaps you have invested in the project by now. You have worked long hours, and you want to see it succeed. Your boss’s petty games can put everything at risk. You get angry. It’s wrong. You rebel and try to take him on. Expose him for the despot he is. Challenge his lies and manipulations. You find that those murmurs of discontent from your colleagues are louder in your ear. They come to you with more stories of injustices, in the hope that you will take up their cause or maybe just understand. That you will be the Light Bringer to these murky waters. There might be a big showdown. You will lose. Light Bringers tend to get crucified. You will lose because someone who is personality disordered is much better at the game than you are. (If you are both personality disordered, the ensuing war could destroy the company.) All the support you have amongst your colleagues will wither under the narcissistic wrath of your boss. He won’t just need to be right; he will want to destroy you. It’s not about the project anymore. It never was. Do not be surprised when you leave (because you will have to) if he has gone through your personal emails or slandered you with all manner of malicious lies.

These scenarios I have described all end up with your leaving. After all, slavery is banned, and you have a choice as to how much abuse you will tolerate. In many ways, leaving is the only rational outcome.

Sometimes it might not be possible to leave, at least not immediately. (For your sanity, you do need to have an exit plan on the cards). Maybe you need to finish your fellowship to qualify for a degree, maybe the opportunity you have your eye on only becomes available in a year, or maybe it’s a severe recession and you are lucky (for now) to have a job.

Under these circumstances, you are going to have to figure out how to “manage” your boss. To do this, you need to know what you are dealing with and know yourself. Know yourself, because this strategy can take its costs on your psyche and soul. So be sure to nurture your off-work life – your relationships and passions outside of work. Which means you have to stop working all those crazy hours you were doing when you were trying to impress your boss. It might seem like suicide to set appropriate boundaries when the boss is gunning for you. It might help to remember that he will gun for you with equal ferocity whether you work 40 hours a week or 80.

At this point its not about the quality of your work. It’s about whether your presence affirms your boss or not

When you set appropriate boundaries, be careful how you do it. It can never be confrontational. Narcissists believe all compliments and yearn for them. In other words, suck it up and suck up. So it won’t work to say “you are unreasonable to expect me to work another weekend when you just keep shifting the goal posts”. Rather say “gosh, your planning on this project is so superb, we are way ahead of schedule. I feel comfortable leaving this for Monday.”

When you manage your boss in this way, do so discreetly. A toxic boss heads a toxic system. You don’t want to fuel your colleagues’ resentments. Similarly, don’t offload with your colleagues. Your stories might be similar, but your discontent will get back to your boss. He is paranoid. He is watching you. The underlings are being played off against each other to gain favour or avoid wrath.

As you get adept at knowing yourself (thank you, family, friends, and therapist) within this toxic environment, it is important to clarify your reasons as to why you are staying and for how long you are staying. Don’t let this become your new normal. Then try to adopt an attitude of “detached contact” – see what’s happening, don’t avoid contact and try not to rise to every trigger. Good luck. You are going to need it.



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