I suspect my boss is a narcissist. He comes across as very charming at first, but after a while he can become nit-picky and even nasty. He makes minor corrections and goes on about how significant they are. Appearances are vital with him. He doesn’t do a lot of actual work. How can I tell if my suspicions about his potential narcissism are correct, and if so, how should I deal with it? And what would be the wrong way to deal with it? AL, Abu Dhabi
Research shows that a large number of narcissists become leaders. However, describing someone as a narcissist in the truest sense of the word is a strong allegation to make and must be grounded in real facts with evidence gathered over time. Today the word narcissist is bounced around organisations so frequently that it is not uncommon to hear the term being used to describe the self-inflated ego of senior executives. Unfortunately, numerous false accusations of narcissism are also made if someone is seen to act selfishly or come across as overly competitive. These stamps can be terribly hard to shrug off and have potentially career-limiting effects. Most of us possess some narcissistic tendencies, some just have a few doses of the confidence gene, whereas others display all the disruptive and destructive tendencies that narcissists get their infamous reputation for.
Obvious examples of true narcissism are those in the public eye. This can be one of the reasons behind their status and drive for the limelight. The most notorious dictators and criminals and the world’s most successful celebrities in the past or present have had narcissistic personalities. Simon Cowell, the X Factor creator, can be seen as confident to the point of arrogance, but his success and expertise almost take the edge off his self-inflated ego. Some famous narcissists can be negative role models, and some positive.
True narcissists tend to be confident to the point of arrogance, have an exaggerated sense of entitlement and require constant praise and admiration. They are quick to claim credit for others’ achievements and blame colleagues for their own failures. They generally care only about their own success, and are willing to take advantage of others to get what they need. In short, they’re incredibly difficult to work for, or with. The qualities you described of your boss does unfortunately portray a classic case of narcissism. You also mentioned that he judges on appearance rather than merit and hard work; narcissists are generally guided by superficial judgments of others, and will be proud of their use of such stereotypes.
To deal with your narcissist boss, you need to realise that flattery, praise and appreciation will get you everywhere you want to be. They enjoy being the centre of attention and will accept admiration, even if it is falsely credited. I would suggest to play this in your favour and make sure to appear grateful for minor corrections, even if it’s annoying. Praising them, usually when a crowd is present, will have the most impact and inflate their ego. Many vulnerable narcissists are paranoid and constantly need to feel better about themselves, which is why they become sneaky and undercutting. Rather than resisting and feeling oppressed, keep your boss onside and feeling valued and appreciated.
It’s also in their nature to derive pleasure from watching others suffer, so realising their actions cause you such agony will only motivate them towards more aggressive counter-behaviour. Instead, maintain a positive outlook and show shining confidence, which may cause their obnoxious behaviour to diminish. Believe in yourself and they will be forced to believe in you. But always keep it balanced, as there is nothing worse than making them feel threatened. Unfortunately, in such a case, there can only be one alpha male.
Surprisingly, there are also certain things you can learn from a narcissistic boss. Observe how he communicates, makes impressions on others and shows charisma. He will have the ability to inspire others. Ask yourself if there is anything about the way he conducts himself at work and socially that you can incorporate into your own public and private repertoire. These stature and devotion-seeking characters love nothing more than being role models for others. Let him know that.
Narcissism is one of the trickiest workplace behaviours to manage, especially when it is your boss with the enormous ego making you feel suffocated. Successfully working for a narcissist requires a sophisticated and balanced approach that involves praise and appreciation (albeit false). And if you borrow any of their charming and charismatic qualities, make sure you let them know about it.
Alex Davda is business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at email@example.com for advice on any work issues