Published On: December 18, 2017
Updated On: November 3, 2023
Narcissism, or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, is almost as hard to deal with in the workplace as it is in family or intimate relationships. The most difficult situation is when your boss is a narcissist, because not only are you forced into close contact with your boss every day, but you are dependent on them for your income.
When your boss is unpredictable, self-centered, and easily upset, you might develop something akin to a PTSD response when you go into work each day. You are terrified of being insulted, shamed in front of coworkers, overlooked for opportunities, or even fired. Fortunately, though, there are ways to deal with your narcissistic boss that may allow you to survive and even thrive at work.
Note: I use the masculine pronoun in this piece, but obviously there are many female bosses who are narcissistic or have narcissistic personality disorder.
Your boss might not care if you are sick and will not remember your wedding is in June. Nor will he be sorry for calling you at 9 p.m. on a Friday night. Don’t keep expecting him to have boundaries or reasonable demands. This strategy doesn’t mean you have to comply with irrational requests. If you recognize and accept that irrational requests will continue to be made, however, you’ll end up feeling less stressed and angry.
This tactic doesn’t mean running to get him a cup of coffee every time he asks, but take careful note of how your boss represents himself to you and to others. If, for example, your boss considers himself a high-ranking guy, don’t suggest that a meeting be set up at Starbucks. Propose a high-end meeting place.
The more you pretend to see your boss for who he tries to be, the easier things will go for you. Be sure you don’t genuinely “drink the Kool Aid,” though. Rely on a therapist or a friend as a sounding board to express your true feelings about your boss so you don’t begin to genuinely idealize him.
Most coworkers don’t expect you to know the names of their children, but a narcissistic boss will never forgive you if you don’t remember little Susie’s name — and that she is really into tennis. If your memory isn’t great, write some notes on a document so you can remember the details.
Don’t accuse your boss of failing to do something or of doing anything wrong. Rather than saying, “You didn’t tell me you wanted that presentation by today,” say, “I’m sorry, I thought it was due Tuesday.” Although you may think owning mistakes will give your boss more ammunition to later criticize your performance, it is much better than coming off as defensive. Narcissists will rarely admit they are wrong, so do not try — explicitly or implicitly — to make your boss recognize his own error.
Narcissists maintain power by being alternately very nice and very mean. The same coworker that grumbled to you about your boss’ narcissism on Monday may rat you out if the boss treats him to lunch on Tuesday. It may be tempting, but don’t gossip about your boss. Save your venting for friends, family, or a therapist.
These tips may only help you for so long, depending on the level of toxicity in the situation. You don’t have to remain in the position you’re in, and going over your boss’ head to complain might have bad consequences. Certainly, if there is outright harassment or abuse going on, report it. But if your main issue is with your boss’ narcissistic personality, he isn’t going to change anytime soon. If you can’t or don’t want to deal with him long term, it is only logical to explore other potential opportunities in your job area.
Hopefully some of these points apply to your situation. Remember, your mantra needs to be: “Accept that your boss won’t change, and make your life as easy as you can.” Letting a narcissistic boss ruin your day — or your life — isn’t fair to you!