Credit and Blame at Work

Exploring the psychological forces at play while you work.

The Narcissistic Boss

Why are there so many narcissistic bosses?

Despite many articles and books extolling the value of humility and emotional intelligence among business leaders, narcissism still abounds in the contemporary workplace. There has recently been more interest in narcissism as a key personality variable in business leadership, and narcissism has been the topic of several new books, as well as articles in the Harvard Business Review, the New Yorker, and many other publications.

As unpleasant as it may be to work for a narcissistic boss, it's important to understand the nature of narcissism in order to develop a strategy for dealing with this kind of boss.

First of all, it is important to know what the actual criteria for narcissism are. Here is the definition from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association: A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance
2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
3. believes that he or she is "special" and unique
4. requires excessive admiration
5. has a sense of entitlement
6. is interpersonally exploitative
7. lacks empathy
8. is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Secondly, it helps to realize that in some organizations, and in some circumstances, narcissism can actually confer benefits. Narcissists may be highly motivated and dedicated to success, and even if their primary agenda is their own glorification, they might still make valuable contributions to the organization. The "dark side" of narcissism is that this kind of boss is likely to be exploitative and is unlikely to care about his or her people, to develop their professional capabilities, or to serve as a mentor or a coach.

However, it may still make sense to work for a narcissistic boss, like Meryl Streep's character in ‘Devil Wears Prada' in order to launch or accelerate your career. Even though you shouldn't expect any empathy or support from a narcissistic boss (as Michael Douglas' character, Gordon Gekko, said in ‘Wall Street': "If you want a friend, get a dog"), the benefits of what you learn from working for him or her may outweigh the emotional costs that you incur as his or her subordinate.

For more information about some of the potential benefits and risks of narcissistic leaders, and how they can play out in the workplace, see this presentation about narcissism at work.

I would be interested in hearing from readers of this blog about the narcissists you've worked for, and how you learned to "manage" them.

Ben Dattner, Ph.D., is a workplace consultant, an industrial and organizational psychologist, and an adjunct professor at New York University.

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