How to Work for a Narcissist: A Question of Balance

A grandiose self-view frequently contributes to vision statements that can significantly motivate others. As a narcissist works his or her way to the top, bizarre things start to happen.
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The dictionary definition of a narcissist is a person who is self-centered, exhibiting extreme selfishness, has a grandiose view of his or her own talents, and craves recognition.

All leaders need some narcissism just to survive the trip to the top. Self-confidence, tenacity, and assertiveness seldom exist without it. A grandiose self-view frequently contributes to vision statements that can significantly motivate others. As a narcissist works his or her way to the top, bizarre things start to happen.

As Jeremy Holmes described the narcissist's behavior: "Sufficient unto himself, he becomes more and more self-absorbed - either hyper-vulnerable to every slight, or brutally bullying his way to the 'top,' whose key virtues are his own self-aggrandizement and the denigration of others."

Freud explained that narcissists are emotionally isolated and highly distrustful. While they lack empathy, their charisma often allows them to fake it, at least for a little while. Perceived threats, real or imagined, can trigger rage. Achievements can feed feelings of grandiosity. The task is to benefit from their strengths while moderating their weaknesses.

Narcissists are generally unaware of their external behaviors. They are also unaware of the consequences of these behaviors. They often have elaborate explanations that allow them to shift any "blame" for poor outcomes to others, to ensure that they do not have to look within at their own issues.

So how does a person work with a narcissist? Below are some ideas to consider.

Understand Their Fundamental Behavior Patterns

  • They will always create drama, which allows them to blame someone else for what they do.
  • They are obsessively self-absorbed and lack empathy for others.
  • They are arrogant, feel entitled, and manipulate relationships to serve their own interests.
  • They demand attention and admiration from those around them.
  • They may say something and then later deny ever having said it.
  • They can be very vindictive when they perceive someone as having threatened their self-image.
Develop a Healthy Sense of Self
While this is just generally good advice for any working situation, it is even more critical when working for a narcissist. As an individual, you have your own psychological traits and patterns. Knowing what these are and how a narcissist can manipulate them is critical to your own psychological survival.

One of the most common weak spots is your self-esteem. A narcissist is very skilled at building himself up by tearing down others. The narcissist will work to remove any sense of independence you have, with the primary objective that you become dependent on him. It doesn't mean there is anything's wrong with you. Self-compassion is critical.

If you also have a high need for recognition, acknowledge that within yourself. Consider activities outside of work where you can receive the recognition you desire. You won't be getting this from your boss. Spend time with people who speak highly of you. One of the most hazardous things you can do is to isolate yourself.

Some actions you can start doing for yourself:
  • Meditation - this will help you find a balance point that is inner focused, not outer focused
  • Exercise - Regular physical exercise will help build your resilience and stamina, both of which you'll need
  • Therapy - Uncovering any co-dependency patterns you might have and how they enable the narcissist will strengthen your confidence

Remember, it's not your fault. Blaming yourself, thinking that if you had done everything perfectly you wouldn't be getting the feedback you're getting isn't realistic.

Respect These Operational Realities

Follow their Rules. The person who hands out the gold, makes the rules. Even if you're not in agreement with the direction he or she is setting, in the end you'll need to follow the narcissist's rules. If you are being asked to violate company policy or break the law, you do have a right to say no. I would be careful not to add a threat by saying, "I'm not going to do that and further, I'm going to report this to Human Resources."

Ensure he or she receives all the credit. The narcissist is going to take all the credit, even if you did all the work. After all it is their great vision that caused the results to happen. You can ensure they receive the credit by thanking them for their advice or guidance.

Abstain from criticism. Narcissists are unable to process criticism and can easily fly into a rage. This isn't about you; it's about them and their well-fortified defense mechanisms. They simply won't hear what you are communicating, even if the criticism is done with the best of intentions to warn them of future negative unintended consequences.

Respond quickly to misinformation. Respond honestly and accurately and provide additional data that correct the misinformation. Your response needs to be emotionally neutral and delivered with a matter-of-fact tone. If you counter-attack with your own drama, you'll set yourself up for future failure. The vindictive nature of the narcissist will ensure that they find a way to get even.

Set Boundaries

Narcissistic bosses frequently violate boundaries. They may choose to do this by publicly insulting you. They may fly into a rage at the slightest comment that they perceive as an insult, even if no one else does. You probably won't be able to change this behavior.

It's important for your own self-esteem that you stand up for yourself. I would suggest you do this privately, even if you have been publicly insulted. There is no need to play the narcissist game yourself. Firmly communicate what the limit is and focus on a solution rather than the insult. Stay respectful while you are communicating.

Make sure you know what boundaries you will enforce ahead of time. Make sure you are consistent with your boundaries. If your boss knows the boundaries don't mean anything, he or she will surely escalate to see what else they can accomplish. They win when they perceive you have lost.

Define Your Options
Document what is happening. Writing things down will provide a sense of distance and allow you to gain some perspective. The more detailed the better.

Your options may include:
  • Sharing your perspectives with another person (it's probably best if this person is outside of the company as there is less likelihood that the discussion will come back on you).
  • If the abuse has been significant, look at the employee handbook to determine if bullying has taken place and follow the handbook procedures.
  • Consider finding a different job within the company or at a different company.
This isn't an easy road to walk down. Good luck with your current situation.

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