So what’s it like when you end up working for a narcissist? Well, it’s challenging. Mostly because you don’t know right from the get-go that this is who they are. There is no badge or club and the individual does not volunteer the information upfront. It just didn’t get mentioned at the interview.
I did have some coping strategies, mainly eating a lot of chocolate. But, on the whole that proved unhelpful.
The narcboss, as I have dubbed them, are super charming at first, so accommodating, and then they move to grandstanding. The next phase is an excessive need for admiration of their efforts, a real lack of empathy for anyone else, then controlling and/or overly critical nitpicking feedback, all the while being super sensitive to any feedback on their efforts. Add some extreme selfishness regardless of impact. Plus unstable moods, easily bored, status orientated and kind of lazy. And, of course, masters at manipulation and love bombing.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can identify that I have worked for a couple of narcbosses. I was going to call this article ‘how to survive a narcissistic boss’, but that would be a furphy, because yes I survived, but I mainly survived by leaving as soon as I could. Sometimes you don’t have the option to leave, sometimes you have to wait it out and hope they leave, because them leaving is more likely than them changing. I did have some coping strategies, mainly eating a lot of chocolate. But, on the whole, that proved unhelpful.
Disclaimer: I’m no medical specialist in any space, so please go use Dr Google as there are thousands of articles written by far more qualified people than me when you want to delve into what is medically defined as narcissistic behaviours.
I think I am a pretty intuitive person. On the whole, I relate well to others, work well with others and like being part of something bigger than just me. I’d say I’m a trusting, optimistic, empathetic ambivert. And I think that makes me gullible to the charms of the narcissist. I’m no pushover, but the mental gymnastics the narcboss executes are well beyond my skill level.
So what did I do to make the best of a bad situation … let’s see how I responded after I realised the game being played. Lets start with the easy ones and work up to the more soul-destroying end of things.
Academic Superiority – this one was easy for me as I don’t get tied up in knots over someone having more education than me. So when the narcboss claims superior knowledge due to education alone I just let this one go through to the keeper. Sometimes, if I was feeling a bit naughty, bolstered by all that chocolate, I would ask them to explain xyz in layman’s terms. This was indeed a bit silly as it just re-enforced their superior thoughts about themselves.
Hogging the Conversation – this wasn’t so hard either. The narcboss loves to hold the floor and talk incessantly about their own achievements, their role, their life, their status, name drop and the rest of it. I am a great listener, so I just listened and nodded and ohh’ed and ahh’ed appropriately. In a group setting I sometimes even went to the bathroom to have a break from the crazy. I am a huge diary scheduler so I just made sure I always had a follow on meeting from ours so I could leave with the excuse of ‘off to my next meeting’.
Needing Compliments – again, not so hard as I like to give compliments. The experts might tell you the narcboss has low self-esteem and needs constant compliments to bolster that. What looks like buckets of self-confidence is actually a mask they hide behind. So as I am predisposed to finding the good in people, even narcbosses, I just kept up with a steady stream of compliments. It was my little game in amongst the real game that I had no clue how to play. Because to the narcboss it’s no game, it is the norm.
Breaking the Rules – now we get into a space that I begin to get uncomfortable with. Of course, bosses everywhere break the rules when the need arises, after all, they are the boss. I have broken the rules for the right reasons. But the narcboss breaks the rules for the wrong reasons, primarily self-interest. Narcbosses even break the little rules, which then affect overall organisational culture and we get slippage directly because of them. Things like being late for meetings, leaving early because it’s a nice day, taking trips on the firm’s dollar for no real business reason and the like. Breaking the little rules adds to their sense of being superior. It added to my sense of unfairness and inequity. I coped with this by holding myself to my own standards. Add in here overstepping boundaries too, along the lines of physical space, borrowing things and breaking commitments. Narcbosses can do this because they are so special.
Love Bombing – Beyond charming the narcboss will almost seduce you with their words and praise in the early days. They ‘need’ you. You are the answer to their dilemma, they confide in you to build, rapport, they share overly intimate details and often begin a sentence with something like ‘you are the only one who will understand this’. I caught onto this one quite quickly as there was a manufactured feeling to the intimacy of the whole thing. But it still floored me that someone who I wanted to admire and respect would behave like this. And of course the narcboss is using this technique on many others as well. A bit cult-ish really.
Hot and Cold – A bit like love bombing, but usually further into the relationship. One day you are the favourite/needed/indispensable, next day BOOM! You are dead to them. Usually because their self-interest agenda doesn’t need you anymore or they have got bored with the game or moved onto more fertile pastures. I found this hard to handle as it really interfered with getting the job done. So as a workaround I used emails with concluding lines like ‘I’m doing x as we discussed or as per the agreed plan’.
Alternating Kind and Cruel – This one I found most unbearable. How a narcboss can be so mean, so cruel to an individual and then the next day send them a literal bouquet of flowers with a kind note saying love your work. I mean seriously … Consistency please. I watched one narcboss tear a team member a new one because the individual had received some great press and the narcboss wasn’t mention. I was aghast at my own inability to call out this behaviour as in the moment it seemed so surreal. I never found my voice until days after when I asked the narcboss what they were wanting to achieve by being so mean. The reply floored me ….’me, me mean, I don’t think so’. The narcboss had re-written the whole narrative into their own language. It remains one of the weirdest professional experiences I have ever had.
Well, I could go on and on. I haven’t even touched on so many aspects. Maybe for another day. Leave me a comment if you want Narcbosses part two. But to sum up … the narcboss – employee relationship goes like this:
- seduce figuratively
- create a cosy feel
- kind then cruel then kind then cruel
- discredit, abuse
Repeat on an endless cycle till … a) they leave b) you leave.
Because c) they are never going to change their ways.
Stay safe and avoid long engagements with the narcboss. Cheers Le