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When Your Boss Is a Narcissist

How to reduce the abuse and feel safe at work

Managers correct mistakes. That’s their right. But, no one can give a boss the right to call you an ignoramus, especially in front of an audience. Somehow, you have to reduce the abuse dished out by narcissistic bosses. Telling them off and storming out in a huff won’t help. The fleeting satisfaction you receive from landing a verbal punch is a luxury you can’t afford.

So, what can you do? Logic dictates that we can’t reason with the enraged. Listen hard, plot your strategy, and choose your words wisely. That’s how to handle a narcissistic boss.

The Narcissist Defined

Narcissists are ego-driven, big-headed, cold-blooded individuals who expect total loyalty from others without being loyal in return. According to Craig Malkin, Harvard Medical School lecturer and author of Rethinking Narcissism, narcissists want to feel important. “The more narcissistic they are, the more they’re addicted to feeling special, and that means going to any lengths to get their high, even if it involves lying, stealing, cheating, and manipulating others. A narcissistic boss places getting ahead over getting along, which means they’re often uncollaborative, arrogant, and argumentative, myopically focused on becoming ‘the winner.’”

Narcissistic bosses take all the credit for any successes at work and lash out at those who do not demonstrate their trustworthiness. They are sneaky, because they outwardly appear cool, calm, and collected. Yet, those who know them feel that they are ticking time bombs, and tiptoe around them so as not to be in their path.

Emotional Hot Potato

Bosses may display differing degrees of narcissistic behavior. Instead of making outright caustic and insulting remarks, some narcissistic bosses play what Malkin calls “emotional hot potato.” Picture the childhood game where we toss a “hot potato” from one person to another. The last one to hold it gets “burned.” Well, when a narcissistic boss plays emotional hot potato, the boss is really saying, “I don’t want to feel this self-doubt so I’ll toss that feeling to you.” The narcissistic boss passes her insecurities to the unsuspecting employee, while simultaneously taking out her magnifying glass and putting on her micromanagement hat.

Assess and Block

So, how do we best deal with a narcissistic boss? First, we must ensure our safety. Our organizations should have processes in place to keep us safe. Malkin encourages us to “document everything—times, dates, details of the abuse—and share it with higher-ups.” In today’s day of technological advancement, it’s easy to timestamp our notes. You might even consider sending the information to yourself by email, if you are not yet ready to forward information about a particular incident to HR.

It’s also important to consider whether HR will actually help. “If HR has a history of ignoring the bad behaviors, you’re better off with an exit strategy. You can’t fix this on your own,” Malkin warns.

For those less caustic narcissistic encounters, like the emotional hot potato example above, Malkin suggests that you consider “blocking the pass” to calm the waters. Specifically, if your boss is complaining about your performance, ask your boss a question directly related to him to get the focus off of you. Malkin suggests you say something like, “You seem more on edge about the project today. Is there extra pressure I don’t know about I can help you with?”


Since narcissistic bosses are specifically concerned with “the big win,” Malkin suggests that you find ways to “tie getting along to getting ahead.” For instance, when your boss is considerate and collaborative, thank him for being so. And, share why that is helpful to you. Do not go out of your way to ignore a narcissist, however, as that will cause anxiety for your boss (and for you). Also, warns Dr. Malkin, “Never stroke their ego simply to make them happy. It only feeds their addiction, making them even more arrogant.”

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Copyright© 2016 Amy Cooper Hakim

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