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Last Updated Thursday April 26 2018 07:08 PM IST

Heal Thy Self | How to manage your narcissistic boss

Nirmala Ferrao
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Boss Photo: Getty Images

If it seems to you that you’re hearing more and more about narcissists these days, you are. And it’s not just that the epithet is being flung with wild abandon at Donald Trump (a textbook example of narcissism). It’s also that there are simply more narcissists around these days. There is no novelty in the observation that narcissism is rife among public figures like political leaders, entertainment celebrities and celebrity wannabes. But the number of garden-variety narcissists – in our offices, in our homes, in our daily interactions -- is also on the rise. Think about the exponential number of selfies being generated on Facebook these days. And what are people on Twitter largely tweeting about? Themselves, of course!

But, way before the first selfie, there was Narcissus himself, the ill-fated hero of one of the best-known Greco-Roman myths. Narcissus was a young man with an amazing beauty of physique and appearance. Walking by a pool one day, he bent down to drink the water and was so entranced by his own reflection that he fell in love with it and could not tear himself away. He pined away, still gazing upon his reflection (or, according to another version, killed himself). The fragile flower, Narcissus, that grows on the banks of rivers and lakes, and bears blossoms in white, yellow, orange or pink, is named after him.

The myth captures the essence of narcissism: a pathological preoccupation with oneself. But today “narcissism” is not just a personality type that shows up in advice columns. It’s actually a set of traits classified and studied by psychologists. At its extreme, it becomes a personality disorder – the so-called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). But most of the narcissists around us do not suffer from NPD. (It is estimated that around 1 % of the population would be so diagnosed – more commonly, men). But, whether or not they merit the diagnostic label of NPD, all narcissists embody, in varying degrees, the chief twin traits of this personality type:

The first is a sense of grandiosity. That is, an inflated self-image. Narcissists really do believe that they are better, smarter, more important than other people. They are characterised by unshakable self confidence, contempt for advice, dominance and attention-seeking. For a narcissist, everything is self-referential. He will always look at things through the lens of what’s-in-it-for-me. This grandiose self-image causes him to crave and pursue status and power.

The second defining trait of narcissism is a lack of empathy. While the narcissist is all too keenly in touch with his own feelings and needs, it’s a lot of heavy work for him to get his mind around other people’s feelings and needs. Being sensitive to other people’s feelings is just not on his radar. He will readily and unabashedly exploit others for his own gain.

Strutting the Corridors of Power

Boss Photo: Getty Images

These two qualities can pervade the narcissist’s entire life, making him very difficult to work with and live with. Unfortunately, the corridors of corporate power are rife with narcissists. There’s a reason for this. Research shows that narcissists are more likely to attain to positions of leadership. In fact, it seems that having a narcissistic disposition — self-promoting, larger than life — is often an asset when it comes to zooming up the corporate ladder. Also, narcissists can be extroverted, charming, charismatic and manipulative – all characteristics that help them get ahead. That is why they virtually breed in senior management.

Once in power, the narcissist plays by his own rules. He will look out for himself and ally with those at the workplace who echo his agenda, his decisions, his sentiments -- while obliterating those who threaten his ego. Some of the behaviours he may be expected to engage in:

» riding roughshod over other people’s opinions and suggestions

» constantly belittling and actively pitting people against each other

» devaluing others’ work while overemphasizing his own successes

» emitting strong opinionated statements during group discussions

» taking sole credit for collaborative achievements

» turning resentful and aggressive if he does not keep getting positive attention – or, worse, if he is criticized

Unsurprisingly, the organization (or, the department) that the narcissist heads may be characterized by high levels of all-round stress, lack of cooperative office interactions, absenteeism and employee turnover.

Managing the narcissist – the Art of the Deal

In truth, working for a narcissistic boss is not viable in the long run. It can be draining, demoralizing and destructive and will come at great cost to your own well-being. If you’re stuck working with this person for the foreseeable future, you’ll need to use strategies – and stratagems – just to make this a do-able, even if temporary, option.

So, what are some good ways to reduce the impact of your boss’ self-centred and manipulative behaviour?

Know that you cannot “cure” him or reverse any of his narcissistic personality traits. Personality is not easily changed – if at all. Not even in therapy. And, by and large, narcissists do not in any case come in to therapy for a problem of narcissism – simply because they lack insight into their interpersonal style and do not see it as a problem. If at all they land up at a therapist’s clinic, it is for a problem, such as depression, brought on by their narcissistic tendencies (although they do not themselves see the two as being connected).

The short and snappy answer on how to deal with a narcissist is... Don’t. This may seem like fleeing with your tail between your legs, but it’s certainly better than trying to do battle in the trenches with a narcissist. This approach is in line with what the computer in the movie, “War Games”, realized about thermo-nuclear war: “The only way to win is not to play”. So, if possible, just stay away. Smart people never start with, “How do I make this deal?” They start with, “Should this deal be made?” With narcissists, the answer is usually no. It’s not worth it.

But if there’s no place to run, try these approaches:

Stay in his corner. Things are more likely to go smoothly for you if the narcissist sees you as someone who’s on his side. Even better if he sees you as an asset that will further his status and advancement in the organization. It works in your favour if he sees you as useful for propping up his ego, especially in front of others. Be careful not to outshine him or her – again, especially in front of others.

The narcissist will be more than happy to give you opportunities to congratulate him. All you have to do is listen, show you’re interested and provide regular positive feedback, particularly on those aspects of himself that he is most proud of, say, his technical competence or his powers of reasoning.

Boss Photo: Getty Images

If you can bring yourself to couch criticism as flattery, that could also work in your favour. For instance, let’s say your narcissistic boss yells at you within earshot of the entire department. Your first impulse might be to call him out as the egomaniac that he is. But a better way of successfully thwarting such an outburst in the future might be to frame your response as an appeal to his all-encompassing ego, telling him (in private) that, while you were hurt by his outburst, you are also concerned that such loss of control could undermine his standing as a department head and sully his reputation within the organisation.

This approach really is key to working with a narcissist and staying in a relative comfort zone. If you realize that a narcissist wants something, and if you then zero in on what that something is, you’ll know that, above all, he needs to look good. If you’re smart enough to show him how acts of caring and kindness can bring him admiration and success, you’ll be well on your way to showing him that he can get his narcissistic needs met by acting like a decent, caring person. In other words, help him to look good by helping him to do good.

If complimenting your narcissistic boss or praising him to others feels overly obsequious, don’t do it. But at least be neutral and diplomatic. It might feel disingenuous to play politics in this way but it helps to remember that your goal here is a self-interested one: to advance your career. It’s difficult, but it’s ultimately to your benefit.

Avoid calling him out on his weaknesses. The worst thing you can do to a narcissist is to criticize, challenge or undermine him. Pointing out to a narcissist that he isn’t all he imagines he is, is like pulling a pin on a grenade. You’re inflicting what psychologists call a “narcissistic injury”, and the narcissist is not going to thank you for it – he’s going to hate you. And narcissists are among the most vindictive people around. Burst their narcissistic bubble and you will pay.

There are better approaches to frame an argument that, in effect, challenges a faulty plan or scheme that your narcissistic boss may have proposed. One way is to offer an alternative plan, making sure that you present it as something that is good for his image and career (rather than as something that is good for the organization). Or, offer him a range of different solutions to choose from; this way, he’ll take the final call and feel he’s the one in control.

Be an ally, not a friend. Beware of trying to befriend a narcissistic boss. Avoid sharing personal experiences or intimacies in an effort to ingratiate yourself. Narcissists are known to disrespect the privacy of others, and these confidences may be used against you.

Safeguard your self-esteem. To an extent, narcissism is about dominance. Narcissists make themselves feel big by making others feel small. In other words, belittling you is more about feeding his own ego. Knowing it’s not about you but about him can help keep your self-esteem afloat.

Also, avoid the mistake of putting all your marbles into your relationship with your egotistical boss -- it’s too damaging to your self-esteem. To cope, you need to find outlets outside your job that bring you pleasure and give you a sense of self-worth – whether it’s joining a hobby class, taking up exercise or doing volunteer work at a community centre. You need a basis for deriving personal value that’s independent of your job.

Buffer yourself against his pratfalls. Narcissists are very prone to errors of over-confidence and risky decisions. They believe they have superior judgement and will therefore go for high-stakes risks, something that can then blow up in everyone’s face. Be aware of the chinks in his armour so that you can anticipate where his behaviour might cause problems, and better position yourself to avoid the fallout.

Put down a red line that may not be crossed. Working with a narcissist can be detrimental to your own mental health as he attempts to entangle you in his own life. It is therefore crucial that you draw firm boundaries to protect your personal life. Don’t allow tensions from work to spill over into your home life, and nurture your own needs.

Cultivate your support network. Build a support network at work. Befriend your colleagues, or try to find a champion at work – a colleague or other manager who can help promote your work against the sabotage of the narcissist. 

Boss Photo: Getty Images

Also, build a broad and supportive social and professional network outside the organization in case you are given one month’s notice because you just won’t suck up to your narcissistic boss any more, or because you decide to leave because you just can’t take it anymore.

Keep it on record. Document any attempts to discredit you. Preserve all toxic emails and other communications. You may need them if the narcissist undermines your ability to perform your duties and you have to seek recourse. Don’t assume the narcissist will play fair.

Do a cost-benefit analysis. Carefully weigh the pros and cons of staying in your job versus quitting. Even if you put in place all the above strategies, the chances are that working for a narcissist will take a toll on you. But some people are more tolerant than others, and you may decide that you have what it takes to hang in there. Also, leaving your job may not always be possible – or the right answer. If you’re otherwise engaged and challenged by your job, it might be worth it to stay.

Cherish the lessons you’ve learned. Every experience in life – even the negative ones – helps you grow. Most importantly, you’ll learn to associate yourself with positive people more.

And – strange but true – if you distinguish between the narcissist’s bad behaviours and his more admirable skills, there are many things you can learn from him. Observe how he makes positive impressions on others, how he stays eloquent under pressure, and how he uses his communication skills to inspire others. These are skills worth emulating.

In summary, these are the principles:

Reject the narcissist and he’ll freak out.

Act weak and he’ll try to victimize you.

Expose him and he’ll hate you forever.

Temper his weaknesses and learn from his strengths.

Don’t fight narcissism – starve it.

(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)

The opinions expressed here do not reflect those of Malayala Manorama. Legal action under the IT Act will be taken against those making derogatory and obscene statements.

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