A narcissistic leader is about the worst-case scenario for an employee. They are toxic and create a poisonous atmosphere at work. They can be very successful at their jobs, however, and that’s why many workplaces keep them on despite the problems they create. They often have a great vision for what they want to accomplish, and they are good at convincing people to follow them. That can yield obvious benefits for any company in a competitive global market, and it can work well for political leaders as well. But for the employees or followers of a narcissistic leader, it can be an unpredictable nightmare.
To deal with a narcissistic leader, you have to learn how to communicate with them in a non-threatening way without ever confiding in them. You’ll also want to reassure them as much as possible. If you have bad news, deliver it in a way that they can feel as though they are still in charge.
To survive a narcissistic leader, you’ll need every ounce of control you can muster. While my narcissistic mother was not my boss, I was still subject to her authoritarian style, and it was very difficult at times. As a teenager, I had to learn how to tell her things so that she would remain calm and I could get her to help me when I needed it. It was a minefield, to say the least. If you’ve got any kind of narcissistic leader in your life, you’ll want to understand these strategies that worked well for me. I know they can work for you too. Let’s take a closer look.
Stay Grounded in Your Sense of Self-Worth
If there’s anyone who can make you feel worthless, it’s a narcissist. Grandiose narcissists are braggarts who laud their perceived superiority over everyone near them. Check out this video to learn more about why they are such poor leaders.
Vulnerable narcissists, while more subtle, are still attention-grabbing snakes in the grass. They will steal your ideas and take credit for your success. They will lie and gaslight you to make you think it was the other way around.
There’s no winning with a narcissistic leader, particularly if you base your sense of self-worth on their opinion. To avoid letting them get in your head, try to stay clear of them at work as much as possible.
If you can’t do that, try to remember that the ultimate source of their grandiosity is profound insecurity, a strong sense of inner shame, and an enduring feeling of self-loathing. Despite all appearances to the contrary, they live in almost constant fear of being exposed as hopelessly flawed.
This drives everything they do, but it doesn’t have to be behind your actions and motivations. Remember your goals, and stay grounded in your own sense of self-worth. Criticism from a narcissist is virtually impossible to avoid, but you don’t have to believe it.
Though a narcissistic leader will criticize you harshly, you know the truth about your abilities, your ideas, and your goals. Remember you have value, and your narcissistic leader sees the world through a distorted lens, so they cannot be a reliable source of self-worth.
Your value as an employee or devoted adherent to a political belief system doesn’t depend on the narcissist’s own value. Stay out of their sense of entitlement and their egoic delusions, and keep your own dreams in focus.
Balance Their Need for Attention with Your Ambitions
Narcissists have an insatiable need for attention, and they will stop at nothing to get the flow of adoration they crave so badly. This is why they manipulate the people around them.
They depend on other people to feed their ego so they can feel good about themselves. This is something called narcissistic supply, and the narcissist needs an almost constant flow of it since they don’t have a secure identity mechanism that allows them to self-soothe.
Healthy people can suffer failures because they have a strong sense of their own inherent value. They have internal identity mechanisms that reassure them of their self-worth even when things go wrong.
The narcissist doesn’t have this because their psychosocial development was interrupted by some form of childhood trauma. Because they discarded their true self as hopelessly flawed, they were forced to construct a false self to interact with the world around them.
That false self, however, cannot provide the internal stability to prop up an individual’s self-esteem or soothe that person when things go wrong. That’s why they need external validation. This is the impetus behind their need for attention.
For you, it means that you’ll need to prop them up to avoid their explosive narcissistic rage. You’ll never be able to do that enough, however, so you’ll have to balance the times when you are reassuring them with what you need to do to further your own agenda.
It can be a delicate balancing act to pull off, but if you can prop them up with praise while still maintaining a distance so you can work on your own goals, they will often help you too. It won’t be easy, but it can work.
Manage Your Expectations
As anthropologist and psychoanalyst Michael Maccoby writes in the Harvard Business Review, “Throughout history, narcissists have always emerged to inspire people and to shape the future. When military, religious, and political arenas dominated society, it was figures such as Napoléon Bonaparte, Mahatma Gandhi, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt who determined the social agenda.
But from time to time, when business became the engine of social change, it, too, generated its share of narcissistic leaders. That was true at the beginning of this century, when men like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford exploited new technologies and restructured American industry. And I think it is true again today.”
The problem is that, despite how they might shape history and business, they don’t make good coworkers or bosses. The most you can hope of from a narcissistic leader is that they will count you among their allies and, therefore, not attack you.
In fact, they are likely to disparage your performance, particularly if they find out you are leaving. That’s because they will undoubtedly see it as a personal betrayal. Remember that in a narcissist’s mind, you’re either with them or you’re against them.
There are no in-betweens. Narcissists lack object constancy which means they cannot hold a positive thought about you if they are angry at you for some reason. Healthy people can still know that someone they love is a good person even if they happen to be angry at them for some reason.
They can hold both good and bad thoughts about the same person, but a narcissist can’t do that. When they decide you’re against them, they attack you as if you’ve been enemies forever. Understanding this and managing your expectations accordingly is key to dealing successfully with a narcissistic leader.
Be Careful What You Say to a Narcissistic Leader
Narcissists lack empathy, and because of that, they can’t understand how their actions affect other people. They can’t ever put themselves in your shoes and understand how you feel.
That’s why you don’t want to confide in them. Anything they can learn about you basically gives them more ammunition to use against you. They will use anything personal you tell them to manipulate and control you if they can.
Don’t confide in them, and don’t let them know what bothers you. If they learn of anything that makes you uncomfortable, you can be sure they will use that to push your buttons whenever they want something from you.
Narcissists are famous for both creating and then using emotional triggers to get people to do exactly what they want. If they know something about you, they won’t be sympathetic, empathetic, or compassionate.
They don’t have any compunction about using your most personal feelings that you confided to them against you. My mother did this kind of thing to me all the time.
If I told her I thought I was fat or that I was embarrassed about my acne as a teen, she would be sure to point those things out to my friends when they were around. She would use anything she could to undermine my self-confidence.
Your narcissistic leader will do this kind of thing too. Narcissists love drama, and if they can tell other people in the office about something you don’t like or are fearful of, they will do it just to see what happens. They love causing problems because it makes them feel powerful.
That’s why you want to keep your personal thoughts and feelings to yourself. Don’t tell them about your goals, your fears, or anything else personal. It will come back to bite you.
Find Someone Else to Give You Constructive Criticism
A narcissistic leader will not be able to give you helpful, constructive criticism. They will most definitely give you plenty of criticism, but it won’t be the kind you can use to improve your performance or achieve your goals in a productive manner.
Narcissists constantly criticize the people around them. That’s because they need to feel superior by comparison. That’s why they will bring up anything that anyone else does that is wrong.
While they’re quick to criticize, they almost never praise their coworkers. If they do praise you, it’s usually because they want something from you. This kind of feedback is not something you can trust.
You can’t trust anything negative they say to accurately reflect your performance. You also can’t trust anything good they might say because that can change in an instant, and they are likely only saying that because they need something from you.
It’s helpful to find someone else in the organization who can provide you with valuable performance-related feedback. It’s also a good idea to ask another leader or coworker to provide you with a recommendation should you need one.
You can’t trust a narcissist to provide you with a good recommendation, nor can you trust them to help you achieve your career goals. They simply don’t care about your goals. They are only interested in their own.
Don’t Argue Even if Provoked
Most narcissists are very aggressive in their approach to coworkers. They have a short fuse, and they are quick to blame other people for anything that goes wrong. In fact, as this video explains, they always need a scapegoat, and you don’t want to be it.
It’s not uncommon for a narcissistic leader to yell at underlings in front of other coworkers. They won’t ever apologize either, so don’t expect that.
Arguing with them won’t do you any good if they are angry with you. They won’t ever see your side of things, and they often twist anything you say into something completely distorted.
It’s better to simply walk away. You do have a right not to be exposed to that kind of hostility in the workplace, but you have to gauge carefully if it’s a good idea to report an abusive narcissist to HR. That can sometimes backfire.
To assert a personal boundary about what you will accept as treatment in the workplace, if your narcissistic boss is yelling at you, say something like, “I’m leaving now, but I’m happy to talk more about this when you can speak to me in a respectful manner.” Then leave and go to your office or work area.
This could cost you your job, but if this happens regularly, you might ask yourself if that might be a good thing. It’s also true that if you are fired after a narcissistic boss treats you that way, you might have a legal case for workplace harassment.
You would have to talk to a lawyer about that, and of course, you need to be prepared for a significant backlash from the narcissist. But it might be the course of action that is right for you, and it’s likely to be more productive than if you try to argue with the narcissist.
Don’t Try to Give a Narcissistic Leader Helpful Feedback
If you think your narcissistic leader values your opinion, you’re mistaken. They don’t want to hear what you have to say if it is anything other than that they are the best.
They consider any negative feedback as coming from a place of jealousy or meanness. They can’t thoughtfully consider any kind of negative criticism no matter how gently you deliver it. They won’t think about it and realize you’re right, and they won’t admit ever being wrong.
Narcissists can’t admit to any kind of error because doing so is a direct threat of exposure. They fear that people will see they are a terribly flawed individual who has very little value. This is actually what they believe about the self they rejected long ago.
They live in constant fear that will be exposed, and everyone will see them for what they believe themselves to be. That’s why they can’t accept criticism of any kind, nor can they admit wrongdoing.
If you must give them negative feedback, you should try to word it in a way that allows them to think they saw the error of their own ways. For example, if you think you have uncovered that a mistake they made is causing a particular problem, you might say, “Do you think that when we changed that code, it created this problem? I thought it was a good idea, but maybe it’s what’s causing the error. What do you think?”
You’re telling them that any reasonable person would have thought what they did was a good idea, and you’re including yourself in with the narcissist as part of the ‘we’ who made the mistake. That gives the narcissist an opening where they can suddenly come up with the solution and look like the hero who saves the day.
Keep Accurate Records
When you’re dealing with a narcissistic leader, it’s critical that you keep accurate records of your contribution to any projects as well as any interactions you have with the narcissist. It might be necessary to have those if you ever have to prove that something was your idea or that you opposed an idea the narcissist implemented anyway. This could be vital for your own advancement or if you have to file a complaint with HR.
The narcissist will, of course, push back against any claims you make, but contemporary records can often sway the people who are making the decision. Make sure that you note the date, time, the people involved, and the relevant details in any records you make so that you can accurately present them if need be.
This is very helpful if the narcissist has created a hostile workplace. It’s also a good idea to talk to someone in your life about what’s going on. This might be a coworker, but it could also be your spouse or best friend. Telling them what’s going on at the time gives more weight to your side of the story.
You do have to beware of flying monkeys, though. These are the people who are the narcissist’s sycophants. They’ve made the determination that they will support the narcissist no matter what. If you tell one of them your side of the story, they will likely distort what you said and support the narcissist all the way.
Narcissists lie all the time, and they gaslight and project too. They will try to make it seem like you’re the unstable one if they are confronted with a complaint. Keeping accurate records can benefit you greatly as you try to convince others of what happened.
Don’t Get Too Close
Don’t ever get in a personal relationship with a narcissistic leader. Being close to them will not prevent their abusive treatment, and it will make it harder to oppose them if you have to do so.
If you’re involved in any organization with a narcissistic leader, keep it professional all the way. Narcissists are not any better as close friends or romantic partners than they are at being good leaders.
The closer you are to them, the more they will know what gets to you, and they will use that knowledge against you. Additionally, you’ll alienate yourself from other people in the organization who will believe that you’ve slept your way to the top or lack the skills to advance in your career without becoming personally involved with the boss.
It’s better to keep your relationship with a narcissistic leader strictly professional. That doesn’t mean they may not try to take it to the next level, but if you allow that, it will not benefit you or your career.
I remember when my parents divorced, my mother had a brief fling with a coworker. When that coworker dumped her, she went on a rampage to smear his reputation. It got very ugly, and both my mother and her ex ultimately lost their jobs.
Being involved with a narcissist in any capacity is a nightmare, but when they are a leader, it’s even worse. They have no problem taking advantage of underlings. They will steal your ideas, claim credit for your accomplishments, and blame you for their errors. They are aggressive, entitled, and brash. While they can help an organization advance its goals, they often cause more problems than they solve. If you have to work with one of these tyrants, they will use anything they know about you to manipulate and control you. They will even use your own emotional wounds against you.
There might not be much you can do about a narcissistic leader, but you can prevent them from triggering you emotionally. I’ve created a 5-Step Roadmap to Heal Emotional Triggers that can help you recognize, defuse, and even heal your emotional wounds. If you can do that, you can prevent any toxic person from triggering you so they can manipulate you. The roadmap is free, and if you click here, I’ll send it directly to your inbox so you can start healing today.
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