Perhaps the best portrayal of a narcissistic boss is Meryl Streep in her film role as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (2006). The fear and intimidation she exudes in her employees is a classic example of narcissism. While watching it on the screen may be entertaining, it is not that way when you work for one.
Narcissism at work is another whole level of exhaustion. There is little difference between a narcissistic co-worker and an employer except the employer has more visible power. How do you know if you are dealing with a narcissist? Review these characteristics:
- Endlessly “high maintenance” over irrelevant matters
- A constant need for admiration and attention from clients, employees, and upper management
- Demeaning to those beneath in status
- Creates insecurity about other’s jobs through threatening remarks
- Usually industrious, preferring to be known as someone who gets the impossible done
- Sometimes can’t hold down a job because of threats or intimidation
- Bullies fellow employees into submission
- Treats superiors better than subordinates but is equally demanding of both
- Shows a lack of empathy which allows them to fire with ease and without cause
- Refuses to share credit when things go well
- Refuses to be blamed when things go poorly
Sometimes it is not possible to avoid working with a narcissist as many of them easily climb the ranks of upper management. Instead, it is better to learn how to handle them.
Use the Hamburger method. Picture a McDonald’s hamburger. Have you ever eaten the meat without the bun? No, because the meat is terrible without the bun. For just about anyone (but a narcissist in particular), delivering bad news is the meat of the matter and without a bun, it is likely to be spit right back out. So, create a bun of praise around the meat. Since narcissists love themselves, praise first, then follow up with the meat of the matter. End with another personal or professional praise.
Use it only once. You are going to be shocked at how well this works and be very tempted to repeat it for the dozen other meats that need to be addressed but watch out. The narcissist boss will likely catch on and become even angrier, thinking they are being manipulated. So when you do this, do it once per conversation, and never twice in the same day.
Pick the meat carefully. If possible, prioritize the meat that needs to be confronted and start with the most burning issues. Then follow it with the greater long-term impact matters and end with the not so important short-term concerns. Whenever possible, overlook some meat so your confrontations are not frequent, but don’t be irresponsible. Some meat must be dealt with, however insignificant it may seem.
When in danger… If the confrontation begins to take a bad turn, don’t defend yourself. Never ever give ground to a narcissist unless you’re willing to give that ground up permanently. Instead, repeat back part of what your boss is saying, but not so much that you’re seen as obnoxious. Say just enough to let them know they have been heard, even if this includes something negative. That action alone, without overreaction, will be enough to take the wind out of their defensive sails.
Avoid emotion. A narcissist has no empathy for anyone else except themselves, so don’t waste time getting upset or teary-eyed. The quickest way for a narcissist to stop being angry is for there to be a non-emotional reaction. When emotion is shown, they believe that they have won and will treat you like prey instead of with compassion. When no emotion is shown, the narcissistic boss will try another tactic, such as changing the subject to try once again to get the upper hand.
Don’t give up ground. Stand still and stay strong, and your narcissistic boss will likely soften instead of attacking the next time. Just remember that a narcissistic boss is common and even if you left this position, it is likely another one is lurking at a different job. So, stop fighting and learn how to talk to a narcissistic boss instead of running from them.