“Get out of my office now,” yelled Mike’s boss as a small paperweight was flung in his direction, hitting the wall next to where Mike was standing. “You’re an incompetent idiot,” was his boss’s parting remark. Mike was shaking from the whole event and not even sure what set his boss off. The unpredictability of his employer’s moods was overwhelming.
Yes, Mike had delivered some bad news. A new client had just recently been dissatisfied and decided to go with a different firm – but this sort of event happened frequently and was even expected to occur to some degree. That’s why, in this instance, Mike considered his boss’s reaction as irrational and over-the-top. Thinking over his options, Mike knew for sure he had worked too hard to get to the position he had finally earned, and he also was confident that he was unwilling to quit because his boss frequently displayed erratic behavior.
There was another concerning behavior that worried Mike, however. The reason the client left the firm is that Mike’s boss failed to implement one of Mike’s ideas that would have improved customer experience. When Mike proposed the suggestion, his boss immediately shut him down and refused to listen to Mike’s reasoning. Had the firm followed Mike’s proposal, the client would have remained, and their dissatisfaction would have never occurred. Instead, Mike’s boss blamed him for the client leaving, called him an idiot, and reported to his superiors that the whole thing had been Mike’s fault.
According to ancient Jewish tradition, for residents to remain within their community as “clean” or “pure,” a goat was released into the wilderness after ceremonially taking on the sins of others. With all the sin cast out from the community through the goat, people would theoretically be capable of living sinless and peaceful lives. The term scapegoat stems from this concept of one person (or animal) absorbing the mistakes of others so the person who initially did wrong has no responsibility for the effect of their mistake. The scapegoat is usually innocent, and they are the fall person for those who have created the error. Mike was made the scapegoat for his boss’s poor decision. How did this happen?
- Hostile environment. In order for a narcissistic boss to establish control, they purposefully work to instill fear into their subordinates. This can be done through threats of firing an employee just because they can, demoting someone over a small infraction, unnecessarily exposing a shortcoming, and/or exaggerating a minor character flaw. At the same time, the narcissist will highlight their repeated success; They’ll have show-y pictures of influential people displayed in their office, go out of their way to be seen talking to and schmoozing with their superior, and/or appear to have ample amounts of money compared to their colleagues. This large discrepancy between the narcissistic boss and their subordinates creates a hostile workspace in which the subordinates believe they can never live up to the narcissist’s expectations.
- Micromanaging insignificant matters. Another way a narcissistic boss establishes control is by micromanaging their subordinates. Nothing is off limits to the narcissist – from how the subordinate dresses, to what they eat for lunch, to how they write an email, to when they can take a bathroom break, to what picture they can have on their desk – if it can be done wrong, a narcissistic boss will let their employees know how. These small, seemingly meaningless, details are practiced by the narcissistic boss to remind the subordinate that they are powerless compared to their superior. A narcissist especially likes to control what usually is insignificant to other managers as a way of demonstrating their pervasiveness. When the narcissist controls the small stuff, the subordinate naturally assumes more substantial decisions will also be decided solely by the narcissist.
- Showing favor. By contrast, the narcissistic boss will pick one person in the office to show their favor towards. This person seems to do no wrong in the eyes of the narcissist. Even when they commit the same infraction as another employee has that previously resulted in a termination, they are not punished. This favoritism is a way of highlighting that if other employees just did what the narcissistic boss asked, everything would be fine. Again, it is a way of showing that the narcissistic boss is in control and capable of showing kindness. To the superior of the narcissist, this is another demonstration that they are not that bad, just in case anyone complains.
- Need to be the hero. A narcissistic boss will not like any idea in which they are unable to take full credit for the benefits of implementing the decision. Mike’s biggest mistake in presenting his idea was telling his boss that he had already talked to the customer about it. His boss could not have Mike outshining him, so he immediately rejected the idea. Had Mike been willing to not take the credit for the idea and allowed his boss to be the hero in front of the client, things would have worked out differently. Narcissists need a constant flow of attention, and just the appearance of having that attention focused on someone else was enough for Mike’s boss to attack.
- Need for a scapegoat. The purpose of a scapegoat is to pass responsibility onto someone else. Usually, the subordinate is unsuspecting at first and agrees because they are trying to get along with their narcissistic boss. Narcissists can’t allow their ego to be tarnished by an error, so they enlist a scapegoat to pass the buck. Because of the hostile environment and micromanagement, Mike was already feeling unstable at work which left him open to being attacked. The favoritism Mike’s boss showed another employee kept him hopeful that things could change. But because Mike did not allow his boss to be the hero, Mike became his boss’s scapegoat.
- Reverse attack. To keep this from happening again in the future, Mike started by befriending everyone in the department. Instead of defending himself during the micromanagement attacks, Mike thanked his boss for the insights. Then he went out of his way to praise his boss to his face and in front of a senior level manager. To seal the process, Mike went out of his way to set up a scenario where his boss could be the hero. Feeling vulnerable and not liking the positive attention Mike was now getting, his boss helped him get a promotion in another department just to keep the competition away.
Mike learned from being put in a scapegoat position. Instead of running away or giving up, Mike discovered a way out of a problematic situation that benefited both him and even his narcissistic boss.