How did you decide to work for this person? It’s easy to be fooled by a narcissist leader—at least at first, says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems. “A narcissist comes across as charming, charismatic, and confident,” he says. “He seems like the kind of person you want to work for—it’s only later that you see the dark side.” If you’re stuck with one of these bosses, here are some strategies that might help.
Know what you’re dealing with.
There’s a difference between someone who’s an egomaniac and puffed up with self-importance and someone who has a narcissistic personality. Read up on the personality type. Tthe more you understand people, the better your relationships will be. Narcissists are controlled by the shame of not living up to the perfect ideal for them. If you understand that going in, you can help them see you want to help them reach their goals.
Tend to your own self-esteem.
Working for a narcissist can be demeaning and stressful. You’re in the mode “of self-survival,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. To cope, you need to find outlets outside your job so you have to place too much emphasis on the job. Find something meaningful to you outside the workplace.
Stroke their ego.
When dealing with a narcissist, flattery will get you everywhere. “They want people to love them, and they will believe any compliment you offer,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. Which is why, he says, pretending to admire your narcissistic boss “and sucking up will generally be effective,” he says. “Compliment your boss subtly and do it when you two are alone,” so as not to alienate other colleagues. It might feel disingenuous to play politics in this way but, says Chamorro-Premuzic, try to remember that your goal here is a “selfish one: to advance your career. It’s difficult, but it’s ultimately to your benefit.”
Emulate certain characteristics.
Distinguish between the bad behaviors and more admirable skills. Observe how your boss makes impressions on others. Then pay attention to their charisma and how eloquent under pressure they are. Many narcissists are often good communicators, tend to be quite visionary and can have the ability to inspire others, and this skill can be emulated.”
If you need to make a particular business case, Michael Maccoby, president of The Maccoby Leadership Group suggests framing your argument around what is good for your manager’s image and career. “Your boss doesn’t care what is good for the company,” he says. However, if you’re able to demonstrate that a certain strategy portends a disaster (or a victory) for your boss, you’re much more likely to win him over. “Narcissists are constantly trying to figure out, what does this mean for me?”
Indulging in workplace gossip is rarely a wise move. When your boss is a narcissist, it can be dangerous. “Be very careful,” says Maccoby. “These people tend to be paranoid and see enemies everywhere.” Anything you say will likely get back to your boss, says Chamorro-Premuzic. “Narcissists are constantly trying to collect information about what other people think of them.” If you need to vent, talk to your therapist, spouse, or a friend—provided they don’t work at your company or in your industry. Be as “neutral as possible” when your boss’s name comes up in conversation and “never put anything in email,” he says.
Practice some degree of avoidance.
If your boss is a vulnerable narcissist, your best bet is to keep a wide berth. Too much interaction with this kind of leader might unintentionally slight them in some way. And that could be a bad place for you to be.
Be a good professional ally.
Things are more likely to go smoothly if the narcissist sees you as someone who’s on their side. “You want your boss to see you as an asset to further his or her status in the organization,” says W. Keith Campbell, professor and head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia.
Carefully weigh the pros and cons of staying.
Even if you successfully employ the above tactics, chances are that working for a narcissist will take a toll on your satisfaction at work. Carefully consider whether you want to continue working for this person. Of course, quitting your job or getting a new boss isn’t always possible—or the answer. “It’s a personal decision, and some people are more tolerant than others,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. If you’re otherwise engaged in your job, find the work stimulating, and see the possibility of advancement within two or three years, it might be worth “the sacrifice” to stay, he adds. But if you find you’re working for a “narcissist with a destructive philosophy of domination and control,” Maccoby has one piece of advice, “Get out!”
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