Reflections on narcissistic bosses

Posted by: Ben Dattner on June 23

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Despite many articles and books extolling the value of humility and
emotional intelligence among business leaders, narcissism still abounds in the contemporary workplace. There has recently been more interest in narcissism as a key personality variable in business leadership, and narcissism has been the topic of several new books, as well as articles in the Harvard Business Review, the New Yorker, and many other publications.

As unpleasant as it may be to work for a narcissistic boss, it’s important to understand the nature of narcissism in order to develop a strategy for dealing with this kind of boss.

First of all, it is important to know what the actual criteria for narcissism are. Here is the definition from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association: A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance
2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance,
beauty, or ideal love
3. believes that he or she is “special” and unique
4. requires excessive admiration
5. has a sense of entitlement
6. is interpersonally exploitative
7. lacks empathy
8. is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Secondly, it helps to realize that in some organizations, and in some circumstances, narcissism can actually confer benefits. Narcissists may be highly motivated and dedicated to success, and even if their primary agenda is their own glorification, they might still make valuable contributions to the organization. The “dark side” of narcissism is that this kind of boss is likely to be exploitative and is unlikely to care about his or her people, to develop their professional capabilities, or to serve as a mentor or a
coach.

However, it may still make sense to work for a narcissistic boss, like Meryl Streep’s character in ‘Devil Wears Prada’ in order to launch or accelerate your career. Even though you shouldn’t expect any empathy or support from a narcissistic boss (as Michael Douglas’ character, Gordon Gekko, said in ‘Wall Street’: “If you want a friend, get a dog”), the benefits of what you learn from working for him or her may outweigh the emotional costs that you incur as his or her subordinate.

For more information about some of the potential benefits and risks of
narcissistic leaders, and how they can play out in the workplace, see this presentation about narcissism at work.

I would be interested in hearing from readers of this blog about the
narcissists you’ve worked for, and how you learned to “manage” them.

Reader Comments

James Souttar

August 31, 2009 09:47 AM

One thing to remember about people who fall into the category of narcissism is that they are not consistently narcissistic. Narcissism occurs in episodes, and these episodes are often triggered by setbacks, reverses, perceived insults of one form or another. Consequently the narcissist whose 'performance' is generally seen as good may, in one episode cause huge damage - particularly to the morale of the people who work with him. He will also lie or try to shift the blame in order to avoid being identified with that damage.

The people who are attracted towards narcissists tend, also, to have narcissistic tendencies. Narcissism is about 'image', and the narcissistic leader impresses the person who similarly has much invested in their image (but beneath that, poor self esteem). Narcissistic co-dependency, with its nasty manifestations such as 'gaslighting', scapegoating etc., is thus not just toxic in an organisation but also malignant. The narcissistic boss will surround himself or herself with people who are, to a degree, prone to narcissism themselves.

Unless you really want to go on a death march with Alexander the 'Great' (or Napoleon, or Genghis Khan - all narcissistic 'leadership' models), the narcissistic boss is someone always to be avoided. Unfortunately, however, that's hard to do these days.

Janet Royal

February 16, 2009 09:09 PM

I have had the occasion to work with and for a narcissistic boss for sometime. This woman has sent many, many people on sick leave, has belittled, exploited, and I have witnessed her hit employees. She will infringe on peoples privacy, she will interupt in mid conversation. I have seen her literally holler at people. There are absolutely no benefits to working for or with a narcissistic boss. These people are a rude and poor example of the human race and I would never want to learn anything nor acquire any of their 'talents' in order to climb the corporate ladder.
No Thanks!

never again

August 5, 2008 11:20 AM

Having survived a narcissistic business partner with my sanity intact, I can say from first hand experience that no matter how big the personality, and what the perceived pros a narcissist can bring to a venture, the psychological costs are never ever worth it. Over 2 years, this a**hole drove me to the brink of suicide, deep depression, and totalled my self esteem. All the while managing to somehow manipulate me into believing it was all my fault. AND I have a psychology major!!!

Samurai

July 22, 2008 11:30 PM

There are absolutely no benefits from working with a narcissistic boss. To confront them directly will spell doom for those who dare. The presentation from the link only provides the proverbial "there are two sides to a coin" I will offer this advise from my own experiences as a manager in the government who works for a narcissistic upper level manager:

-Read Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Then read it again and study it carefully.

-Purchase a copy of The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Green.

-Study Machiavelli.

Understand this; Narcissistic behaviour is "co-morbid" with psycho/sociopathic disorders. These people DO NOT feel empathy, they will never feel sorry for your destruction and will stop at nothing to fulfill their goals. If it means to step all over you, your career, reputation.

Study, prepare your plan of action and completely destroy and decimate your narcissistic boss at your earliest opportunity. You will do a favor to yourself and your organization.

Ben Dattner

July 9, 2008 04:38 PM

A,

Sorry you've had to deal with that abuse from your boss. Your first decision is whether or not you want to confront her and insist on better treatment. If you think there's any hope that she may hear you and treat you with greater courtesy, it may be worth doing. If you think she will never "get it", it may not even be worth opening up the conversation.

Good luck-

Hoperfully Leaving

June 29, 2008 10:21 AM

Regarding people who follow in the wake of a narcissist dictator (semi-constructive, let's give the a**hole his due), here is an email received after a particularly intense mid year review. Real life example:

From: HR Director
Sent: Tuesday, June XX, 2008 9:38 AM
To: Employee Department Director
Subject: Post mid year review feedback

What I wanted to try and do was give you some pointers on how to handle 52% shareholder. I know you feel like it may be personal with him, but he treats people the same when he’s angry, in a bad mood, or upset with results. You’ve seen him yell at Employee 1, Employee 2 and Principal. I’m not saying it’s right or it’s an effective way to get results, but that’s just 52% shareholder’s way. Usually, when 52% shareholder is in one of those moods, I stay away because he will not give you his full attention. If my questions can be answered by someone else, I will go to them. I don’t email him when he’s in one of those moods, because he will not write back. That’s another thing – I write him plenty of emails too, and he doesn’t respond. Office Manager was just telling me the other day that she wrote him numerous emails and he didn’t respond. Most of the time I have to go into his office and say, “Did you get my email? What do you think?”.

As for the things that you have done in your department that you say you have done and 52% shareholder has not recognized, I think you need to make explicit and concrete. 52% shareholder likes to see concrete results. He has a hard time dealing with my human resource issues. He is not familiar with HR jargon and he doesn’t usually think about those things. So, I try to make them as concrete as possible and translate the issues I’m having into production/efficiency results so he understands a little better. I would also keep a list of what you have done so when he does ask that question, you have a list of things that you have initiated and put in place. I would also keep everything in writing. If 52% shareholder approves something, and it’s in an email – keep it. This way you can bring it back to him later in case of anything and show him that he liked it. (I have to do this all the time! He’s always changing his mind and never remembers what he said months before). To the point – that’s what he wants.

Lastly, while I was aware that you and 52% shareholder had a strained relationship, I was unaware of the seriousness of your fears and the consequences of it. I know you said that the rest of the job and people you work with are why you are still here, and I believe that. I just don’t think anybody should have to go to counseling because of their job or their boss. I think you can reduce your fears a lot by learning how to deal with 52% shareholder and knowing when to approach him, and doing the things he said yesterday (i.e. learn our competitors in the manner he wants you to).
Feel free to let me know what you think. "

A

June 27, 2008 12:07 PM

I am subscriber of BW in UK but I am actually from India. I work for a small cosmetics company as brand communications assistant in London. I had had a thorough experience with blue chip companies in India in my field but got downgraded to entry level position in an owner driven small company in UK. My boss knows well that I know lot better than her. She has not only pushed me into a corner with a tiny responsibility with no importance but also tries her best to insult me or poke fun at me regularly. Its painful but selling your skills in a racist country like UK is not so easy. What do you think should I do? Run away?

Ben Dattner

June 24, 2008 03:54 PM

Thanks Bob, for the feedback and the reminder. The HBR article can be found at:

http://harvardbusinessonline.hbsp.harvard.edu/hbsp/hbr/articles/article.jsp;jsessionid=1U3PRNH0PLRSQAKRGWDR5VQBKE0YIISW?ml_action=get-article&articleID=R0401J&ml_page=1&ml_subscriber=true

I also recommend Maccoby's book, "The Productive Narcissist"

Bob Sutton

June 24, 2008 10:33 AM

Ben,

I just looked at your presentation and it is one of the most useful I have
ever seen on narcissism. For better or worse, the constructive narcissists
I've worked with all seem to have someone -- often a group of people -- who
seem to follow in their wakes, and clean-up the bruised egos and jilted
followers that they often leave in their wake. Followers of narcissists
often initially believe that their bosses care about them deeply, but learn
the hard way that they are just "objects" that are required for the bosses'
success. Michael Maccoby had had a fantastic HBR article on them in 2004...
it is quite inspired.

Thank you for your interest. This blog is no longer active.

 

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Annie McKee, Ben Dattner and Robert Sutton

Organizational behavior experts Ben Dattner, Annie McKee, and Robert Sutton, empower us to take on hellish bosses.

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