Narcissism

The Dos and Don'ts of Working for a Narcissist Boss

Here's your guide to what works and what doesn't.

Posted Jan 08, 2020

Narcissists are attracted to power and status, and they can be skilled at conveying confidence, exploiting opportunities, and  moving up the professional ranks. This means there is a pretty good chance you'll find yourself working for one at some point along the way. Here are strategies to get the most out of the relationship while avoiding the worst pitfalls of day-to-day life with a narcissistic boss. 

Dos 

1. Do educate yourself about narcissism. For most of us, the underlying psychology of the narcissistic personality is extremely difficult to comprehend.

Emotionally, narcissists are developmentally impaired young children who lack empathy, self-awareness, emotional regulation, and stable self-esteem. They see life in black and white, think hierarchically, and are driven by repressed shame and an exaggerated compensatory persona of superiority and entitlement. Your narcissistic boss doesn't just believe he is better and more deserving than you: His identity and self-esteem balance on that belief.

2. Do identify your boss's brand of narcissism. Overtly domineering narcissists are easy to spot because of their flagrant demands for attention and control. But more covert narcissists are passive-aggressive and often go to great lengths to conceal their selfishness and cultivate a do-gooder public image. 

3. Do validate your boss. Narcissists need a continuous flow of attention and admiration to function. Like hot-air balloons, they need others to inflate them to stay afloat.

Validate your boss whenever and however you can. Point out strengths and successes and offer praise and positive feedback. 

4. Do manage your expectations. Although your boss expects validation from you, don't expect her to return the favor. Your desire for recognition and respect is normal, but giving others genuine validation with no strings attached is beyond the narcissist's playbook. The sooner you accept that reality, the easier it will be to manage the day-to-day. 

5. Do align your success with your boss's success. As unfair as it is, your boss only cares when there is something in it for him and will take ownership of your good ideas and hard work. Find ways to align your success with his, so he feels invested in you doing well. 

6. Do minimize conflict. Narcissists tend to create drama as a way to get attention and manipulate others, and their take-no-prisoners approach often leads to conflict. Do what you can to avoid and prevent problems before they happen, and beyond that, try to keep your head down and stay out of the fray. 

7. Do be reliable, professional, and self-assured. This isn't always easy, especially when your boss is doing the opposite, but you will need to bring your A-game to work.

Your narcissistic boss will hold you to unreasonably high standards and always look for areas of weakness to exploit or attack. Don't give her ammunition by showing up late, dressing inappropriately, or displaying your self-doubts. When she goes low, you go high. 

8. Do consider your boundaries. Narcissists violate boundaries as a matter of course. Whether your boss burdens you with responsibilities beyond your job description or asks you to do something unethical, think about what you are and are not willing to do for the job and be prepared to accept the consequences of holding those boundaries. Document violations and share details with someone you trust, so you have evidence if you need to report abuse. 

9. Do have outlets outside of work. No one should have to tolerate the personal assaults that define life with a narcissistic personality. Make sure to have outlets to discharge the frustration and support yourself with healthy routines and good self-care. Build in rest, exercise, creative pursuits, connections with nature, and time with loved ones. 

10. Do make an exit strategy. Working for a narcissist is ravaging to one's self-esteem and personal agency. No matter how skilled you may become at managing the situation, it takes a heavy toll on your emotional and physical health.

Your boss won't stop pushing you to impossible standards, won't play fair, and won't grow a conscience. You owe it to yourself to find a way to put this job in the rear-view mirror. 

Don'ts

1. Don't expect fair play or reciprocity. Narcissists flout rules, violate ethics, steal ideas, conduct smear campaigns, disavow responsibility, and project and deny their own behavior without a second thought. 

2. Don't expect loyalty. Narcissists expect loyalty from others without earning or returning it. Your boss will not have your back, no matter how much he may tell you he is your champion.  

3. Don't criticize. The number-one rule about narcissists is that they dish it out but can't take it. The narcissist is the first to fault and blame others while being the last to accept critical feedback or take responsibility. Even a hint of criticism, such as questioning an idea they have, can trigger rage or a host of passive-aggressive punishments. 

4. Don't show your vulnerability. Narcissists view life as a war zone, with survival at stake and everyone out for themselves. If you share your feelings or lower your guard, your boss will file the information and use it against you one way or another. 

5. Don't take things personally. Things can feel very personal with narcissists. They inflate your flaws, leverage your vulnerability, play on your hopes, and compulsively project their own issues and emotions onto you.

But the bottom line with narcissists is that it's all about them. They don't see you, don't think about your needs other than how they can manipulate them, don't care about your life beyond their place in it, and ultimately relate everything back to themselves.  

6. Don't expect credit. In narcissists' zero-sum-game mindset, giving credit to others represents a personal loss for them. Don't expect credit from your boss, and if someone else credits you, be prepared for your boss to take ownership of it. 

7. Don't try to justify, explain, or excuse yourself. Arguing a point or explaining why you're late or missed a deadline is futile and likely to elicit impatience or contempt. The narcissist does not care about your reasons and sees your defense as a weakness to be attacked. 

8. Don't fawn. Your boss wants your validation and may look to you for bolstering and praise, but be careful not to sound insincere. Narcissists are hypervigilant, and above all, can't abide looking foolish or out of control. 

9. Don't put your self-esteem on the line. We all need to feel a sense of purpose and competence in the work we do, but your worth as a human being should never be part of the equation. Don't let your boss make it feel that way. 

10. Don't give up on yourself. With a narcissistic boss, you may come from a background with narcissistic parents or other traumatic circumstances. Children from such families often replay the dynamics they grew up with in their personal and professional adult relationships until they gain enough awareness to break the pattern. If this resonates with you, seek more information and help. Healing begins with awareness.