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How to Recognize and Work With Narcissistic Leaders


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Over the last 20 years, narcissistic traits have been increasingly recognized and documented as prevalent personality characteristics of executive leaders. For researchers such as historian Christopher Lasch, this is no surprise. In his book, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, published in 1979, Lasch predicted it was only a matter of time until we saw narcissistic characteristics become commonplace in senior leadership

Whilst narcissism is described in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 as a disorder, clinical psychologist and narcissism expert Dr. Ramani Durvasula describes it more as a cluster of traits. She recognizes there can be commercial benefits to having senior leaders bearing narcissistic traits. However, at the same time, their methods to achieve results are often self-serving and to the detriment of others’ emotional and psychological well-being. 

Related: Your Narcissism Is Killing Your Employees’ Productivity. How to Avoid the Pitfalls.

Recognizing narcissistic traits

Working with a narcissistic boss or colleague can/will be emotionally and psychologically taxing. However, it can be done. Dr. Durvasula encourages improving our skills at recognizing behaviors and communication styles that can have a significant, negative impact on our psychological and emotional wellbeing. She describes four narcissistic types: 

1. Grandiose. You might spot behavior and communication which oozes an unrealistic sense of superiority. Narcissist bosses and/or colleagues are likely to demean others and speak of them as inferior, while speaking of themselves as unique and misunderstood by the masses. Narcissists feel only a special few have the capability to appreciate their greatness.

2. Malignant. Cheating, lying, stealing and covering up unethical behavior and decisions can be expected. A Journal of Business Ethics study tracking the behavior of 1,126 CEOs between 1992 and 2012 reported highly narcissistic individuals engaging in accrual-based earnings management. Participants strived to influence company stakeholders’ perception of current and future performance, indicating accounting choices were driven by self-serving behavior.

3. Covert. You’ll hear expressions your boss or colleague feels put upon by the world. Initially, you might feel they are depressed. However, notice if the language reflects a perception that the world is wrong and they’re right. Mistakes will be blamed on their perceived incompetence of others.

4. Communal. At face value, your boss’ or colleague’s virtue signaling seems commendable, but be mindful of noticing their seeking and creating opportunities to receive a lot of recognition and validation. Beneath the surface of seemingly visionary, charitable ideas can lie reward avenues that are self-serving and primarily gratify them before anyone else.

Related: Your Narcissistic Boss Could be Great But Is Probably Just Hurting the Business

At face value, recognizing the signs can be challenging and highly confusing. More overt signs you may be working alongside/for an individual with narcissistic traits:

  • Aggressive (angry, screaming), abusive and berating communication which leaves you feeling emotionally and mentally destroyed.
  • Very charming, charismatic and treat you as special until they get what they need, at which point, they then move on quickly to a new target. You’ve unwittingly been groomed to think you are important and have special, unique capabilities until someone else comes along who can better serve the need.
  • Inner circles of team members are anointed as “The Special Few.”
  • Employees develop a cult-like admiration for such leaders.
  • Employees’ loyalty might be rewarded financially, making it harder for them to leave a toxic workplace.
  • They create excitement through drama, chaotic inner circles and in-fighting. They love chaos because it can give them more power.
  • The things which should matter in business, such as quality output, competence, productivity and effectiveness, don’t matter.
  • No matter how much you work, it will not be enough. Mishaps will be labeled as “your fault” and over time, you may start to feel you are overreacting … you start self-gaslighting.
  • You can be asked to do things that make you feel uncomfortable and incongruent with your personal and professional ethics.

According to Dr. Durvasula, narcissists’ pursuits are purely and primarily for their own, sole enrichment. Only later might they talk about the benefits to others. They appear as humble, but then take on a victimized stance. This behavior helps followers get them more on board. 

As difficult as it may seem, working with narcissistic types can be done. It does, however, involve exercising strong awareness and outside support. Don’t expect to successfully navigate such relationships alone.

Exercise radical acceptance and personal boundaries

Working with such personality types will be frustrating, confusing and challenging more often than not. Follow the advice of experts and don’t waste time and energy endlessly negotiating. You can fall into the trap of thinking you are the special unique individual who can “get through” and forge a special bond and understanding. 

Working with a therapist to learn detachment strategies can reduce the challenge of working with narcissistic personality types. Heighten your conscious awareness not only of what to expect but also what behavior you will and won’t tolerate. Consulting with such a trusted third party will help keep your self-worth, confidence and self-perception healthily intact.

Observe your boss’ or colleague’s communication skills

Even though your boss or colleague may exercise certain charm tactics to influence relationship dynamics to his/her favor, there are opportunities to learn. Step into observer mode and see what intercommunication styles, techniques and strategies you can emulate to improve your own communication skills. You may approve of some and not others. At the end of the day, you get to choose. 

Edify and stroke the ego

Narcissistic or not, providing genuine positive recognition and reinforcement can be uplifting to anyone. Knowing a common feature of such a personality type is the need for recognition and validation, consider making a concerted effort to give this. However, look to exercise compliment-giving in ways that feel as authentic as possible to you.

Advocate for the colleague or boss who is looking to advance themselves, but check yourself if you’re expecting a kickback for doing so. If you notice there is a stronger yearn from them to receive recognition when you know you are equally deserving, see if you can practice stepping out of the limelight at times to create space for them to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame. Doing so will help keep a working alliance between you both.

Related: How Humility Keeps Your Ego From Hijacking Your Leadership and Team Success

Develop your own transition strategy 

When you notice tensions rising between you and your narcissistic boss or colleague, it’s essential for you to do four things:

  1. Ensure you access self-care strategies which ideally includes working with a therapist, sharing conversations and exchanges you have with someone you trust who can be diplomatic, non-judgmental and objective.

  2. Document and time-stamp your experiences and conversations.

  3. Regulate and limit exchanges with the problematic individual where you can. This is done to protect yourself and preserve your confidence, self-worth and .

  4. Develop an exit strategy to transition out of working with that colleague or boss.

When the only way you can feel emotionally and mentally safe to have any exchange with your colleague or boss is with a witness, it’s time to consider a transition strategy. This doesn’t necessarily mean an exit strategy, but it’s important to apply due diligence weighing up what resources you have if you’re wishing to challenge and call into account your boss’ or colleague’s behavior. 

Don’t feel defeated if exiting presents as the best option long-term. At that point, you fully deserve to experience greener pastures.

Related: Exit Strategy: Don’t Let Personal Motivations Conflict With Rational Business Decisions


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