Narcissistic. Bully boss. Jerk. Toxic leader. Employees use these terms to describe a supervisor or manager who creates workplace havoc through the dysfunctional way they relate to others.
As a psychologist, I am cautious about using psychological diagnostic labels (no, “jerk” is not a diagnosis), but sometimes terms find their way into the general culture, and the relevant issues need to be addressed. Such is the case for a word like “narcissism.”
Someone who is narcissistic is totally, completely focused on themselves. The term comes from the Greek mythological figure Narcissus, who was prized for his beauty. He spent most of his day admiring himself in the mirror.
If you think about the characteristic on a continuum, it runs from being self-focused (like a young child), to being ego-centric (literally, “I-centered”), to being self-absorbed, and ultimately to being narcissistic.
Narcissists display the following characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors:
- Their conversations are centered around themselves. The most common subject of the sentences they utter is “I.” They become disinterested and disengage from any conversation that doesn’t focus on them or what they know.
- They believe they know everything about any topic and that they are always right. They make decisions according to what is best for them. The impact their decisions or behaviors have on others is not important.
- They are condescending and critical and expect others to meet their needs.
- They take credit for anything good that happens, whether or not they were involved. Conversely, they see anything bad that happens as the result of someone else’s stupidity or failure to follow their advice.
- Image is hugely important to them. Most of their decisions will focus on making themselves look good, rather than on doing what is best to serve clients.
What to Do If You Work for a Narcissist
- Your Work: Focus on your job, not on what the narcissistic boss is doing. If you don’t focus on your job, then you will be blamed when things go bad – and you will take the fall.
- Document Conversations and Decisions Made With Your Boss: Follow-up with an email stating: “From our conversation, this is what I understand you want me to do … If that is not the case, please inform me.”
- Take Care of Yourself: Narcissistic bosses will “use you up” to reach their goals. You have to set limits on what you are and are not willing to do.
- Expect Them to Praise You (or give you credit for doing a good job.)
- Expect Them to Change: A true narcissist is structurally damaged and views the world from a distorted point of view. They are who they are, and they will continue to make choices according to their view of themselves.
- Take Their Criticism Personally: Narcissists are critical of everyone and use “put downs,” criticism, and embarrassment as part of their arsenals in trying to make themselves look good in front of others.