7 tips for dealing with a narcissistic boss

Is a toxic manager making your work life intolerable? Consider these expert coping strategies
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An overblown sense of self. A feeling that they can do no wrong. Perfectionism. Insecurities. Entitlement. No boundaries. Lack of empathy.

These are characteristics of a narcissist.

What happens when you work for someone whose behavior is so challenging to manage that you can’t focus on your work?

Part of a narcissist’s behavior is to belittle or challenge others. They do this to elevate and bring the focus back onto themselves. Narcissists bring up issues for us about ourselves or our past that have nothing to do with them, but we become emotionally activated, regardless.

Below are some tactics that can guide you through reporting to a narcissistic boss.

1. Get support

Find a professional resource like a coach, Human Resources (HR) representative, mentor, or even a therapist. These people can help us distinguish between what is and is not about us and reconnect us to the logic and meaning center of our brains. This gives us clarity on what to do next.

2. Understand why people are toxic or narcissistic

I once had a manager who didn’t exhibit the stereotypical outward control and egocentric behaviors of a narcissist. However, after speaking with a colleague about some challenges I was having, I learned that some narcissists externalize themselves as more submissive and compliant. This is because they take an active role in manipulating how their image appears to whatever positions them with the most gain.

[ Also read IT leadership: Why adaptability matters. ]

Investigating and understanding these dynamics can provide helpful context as to why this occurs and further removes you from the situation. Usually, toxic people have nothing to do with us and are operating from a place of pain.

3. Empathize

This may sound strange, but sometimes people who appear toxic are dealing with their own struggles. Journal or reflect on what it may be like in their shoes, as it may give you insights into their primary (vs. secondary or reactive) emotions and deeper feelings that explain why they are showing up this way. Sometimes, if you are able to see their humanity, it can reveal other ways to deal with them.

4. Speak up

Even as an employee, it is ok to speak up and set boundaries. It is ok to give respectful feedback to your boss about how they are leading and ask for specific ways of being supported.

Usually, it is helpful to prepare for these conversations by taking notes or even role-playing with another person. For example, consider using “reflective listening” to state back what you are hearing them say. This not only soothes their ego by re-stating their ideas, but it also helps with uncovering miscommunication. To further reinforce their central view, any feedback should be positioned around their benefit and your intentions to support them.

Books like Crucial Conversations or Difficult Conversations can provide helpful frameworks for these conversations, which are some of the most difficult to have at work.

[ Read also Handling difficult workplace conversations: 7 tips ]

5. Focus on execution

In the short term, driving work and getting things done will distract from anything that could be a target or a distraction. However, this is generally not a good long-term strategy, as it does not resolve the issue.

Why? The problem with staying out of mind, out of sight of a narcissistic manager is that you’re staying out of mind and sight of your manager. A close, highly visible relationship with your manager is the best long-term strategy for career growth.

6. Talk to HR

If your company has a Human Resources department or role, it is always ok to approach HR confidentially and ask for support. They may just listen or provide coaching, or they may be able to apply defined organizational processes. For example, your manager or your areas of responsibility may be shifted to reduce friction.

It can feel immensely comforting to know that you are not alone and that mechanisms are in place to support you through any difficulty.

[ Read next How to deal with a toxic boss ]

7. If nothing else works, get out

Usually, these situations are not sustainable, and toxic people rarely change quickly or without effort. Making a plan to exit will bring relief as it gives a sense of agency and freedom in a situation that otherwise leaves you feeling powerless and stuck.

[ Check out essential career advice from 37 award-winning CIOs! Get a variety of insights on leadership, strategy, and career development from IT executives at Mayo Clinic, Dow, Aflac, Liberty Mutual, Nordstrom, and more: Ebook: 37 award-winning CIOs share essential IT career advice. ]

Erik Kellener is Partner at Evolution. As a leadership coach, management consultant, and strategic advisor, Erik brings 20+ years of operating experience as a technology executive and thought leader for both emerging and established brands in the U.S. and overseas.