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Seven Ways of Detecting and Dealing with Narcissistic Bosses

Seven Ways of Detecting and Dealing with Narcissistic Bosses

Medically Reviewed by Chelsey Lahr, PMHNP-BC

Do you find yourself feeling anxious, depressed and incompetent at work? Of course, private struggles can lead to these unwanted feelings spilling over to the workplace. However, these turmoils can also be caused by working in a toxic environment, and more specifically, under a boss with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a person with NPD exhibits long-term signs of having a grandiose sense of importance, a lack of empathy, a belief in her uniqueness and a constant need for admiration. In the overt or more exhibitionist types, these signs are obvious. However, not every narcissist is in the middle of the room screaming, "Look at me! I'm the greatest!" In a covert type, these signs are trickier to find. Whatever the type, working under persons with NPD can put employees under severe emotional, mental and physical strain.

Below are seven red flags of narcissistic bosses, along with integral guidelines for protecting yourself.


1.  They are not respecting boundaries.

Bosses with NPD do not respect employees' personal space, time and possessions. For example, they will schedule overtime without pay, expect that your vehicle is used for work purposes and call after work hours with the expectation that you will answer. A lack of boundaries can also be displayed by a boss oversharing her personal life and referring to you as a "friend."

When you attempt to establish a boundary, the boss can pretend to respect it at first. She may also react by ignoring your attempts or persistently continuing to cross the boundary until you are worn down.


What to do?

Know what you will or will not do and accept. Whenever a boundary is about to be crossed, politely, firmly and consistently say, "No." Actions must coincide with words. If you cave in even once, chances are that you would have to work twice as hard to re-establish that boundary.


2.  They are using the "divide and conquer" strategy.

Many leaders thrive through the creation of conflict and confusion. One week, you are described as the model employee. The following week, you are knocked off the pedestal and another takes your place. The boss may also frequently compare you with other employees and vice versa.

The results of this tactic are clear: workers work harder and scheme against each other in hopes that they will hold a permanent position as the model employee.  


What to do?

There is always strength in unity. This can seem impossible if some co-workers are already scheming to stay in the boss' good graces. However, unite with those that also recognize something is wrong. In this unity, a healthier environment can be created; an environment that includes encouragement and disengagement from tactics that aim to drive wedges between you and your co-workers.


3.  They often have mood swings.

You do not know the boss you will get on any given day. Would it be the generous, understanding boss? Would it be the cold, insensitive one?

Bosses that have NPD may frequently have mood swings. Some of the covert types may apologize or give excuses for their behaviors, which employees are ready to accept and also excuse. However, unpredictability keeps workers anxious and on their toes.


What to do?

While there is nothing you can do to control your boss' behaviors and moods, you can control yours. The best thing is to not let the boss' negativity get under your skin. While this is easier said than done, practicing self-care, taking short breaks and finding fun activities outside of work can make things more bearable.  


4.  They are "all talk and no action."

One thing that keeps employees tolerating toxic behavior is the hope for a raise, bonus or promotion. Your boss will dangle promises in front of you so that you keep sacrificing and hoping that it will be worth it in the end. A boss can also go so far as to give small perks to keep you pushing. These perks give you the illusion that you will receive your reward soon.


What to do?

Give yourself a deadline and decide when enough is enough. In numerous cases, jobs are stepping stones for employees' careers. However, if a boss' actions have not been aligning with their words for years, it is time to move on. Remember that the longer you stay, the more chances for your reputation and health to deteriorate. Changing your goals may be necessary. Other opportunities will present themselves elsewhere.


5.  They take credit for others' work.

Narcissistic bosses can often take credit for your hard work. If they are not blatantly doing this, then they are implying that your great work is due to their skilled leadership. When they do give praise or credit, it is usually done with an agenda or in a way to ensure that you do not outshine them.


What to do?

Confronting the boss and talking to Human Resources are options, but if you do not feel comfortable with either, then document all your work for job prospects. If you are in the creative field, alter your style for work and use your unique style for side jobs to build your portfolio and display your true talents.


6.  They don't take the blame. 

When something goes wrong, it is never their fault. Even if projects fail due to their bad judgments and impractical deadlines, narcissistic bosses will find a way to blame you and the rest of the team. The overt types will loudly criticize while the covert types will quietly cast blame, become passive-aggressive or blame you behind your back.


What to do?

Communicate as much as possible using written medium. If you have had face-to-face or phone conversations, follow these up with emails that summarize the conversations so you show that you clearly understand what is expected. If a signature is required, request that the boss or another superior do the signing. Furthermore, remind yourself of your abilities and maintain a reputation of reliability and competence. Therefore, when blame is placed upon you, others will doubt the boss rather than you.


7.  They "forget" or deny their actions and behaviors.

Gaslighting is a tactic used to make victims question their realities and distrust their memories. 

If you are in this situation, it would seem that you often get times, dates and other facts wrong. The boss, meanwhile, will deny facts, conversations and even their actions. After a while of working under these conditions, you can find yourself questioning your abilities and memories. You may develop low self-esteem and begin thinking of yourself as incompetent and scatter-brained.


What to do?

Record everything. Write down dates, times, instructions and any other important facts that the boss states. Repeat what they say so they know that you are recording the correct information. Use emails as much as possible so there is a record of the communication. Be aware that bosses could find ways to "accidentally" delete or throw away your records, so keep them safe. Unity among employees is especially important during these times as co-workers can assure you if something did or did not happen.


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