5 Ways to Manage Your Narcissistic Boss

Being yelled at, being publicly criticized, and being asked to cover for your manager are all inappropriate behaviors regardless of what you have done. Managers are supposed to motivate and manage their employees, and this type of behavior does neither.

Does your boss like having power over others, lack empathy, demand unearned admiration, make demeaning and insulting comments, exaggerate his or her successes, take credit for others’ work, seem absorbed in themselves, and their own image in the company? Sound familiar? If so, you may find the following tips helpful.

Take Connie’s situation (not her real name). Her old manager left, and the new one decided to pick on her—a lot! She criticized Connie for minor issues in her report writing and got angry when she came back 15 minutes late from lunch one day. This, after her manager regularly came back late from lunch herself and asked Connie to cover for her! (Double standards are one of the common issues with narcissistic managers.) Connie was distraught, but didn’t want to quit as she only had two years left before retiring. She sought consultation on what she could do that would help her cope and possibly get her manager off her back. Here are five tips she received:

  1. Remind yourself: It’s not about you! It’s about your manager’s lack of skills and decency. No one deserves to be treated that way. Even if you make minor mistakes (everyone does), even if you’re late on rare occasion (everyone is), and even if you have different styles of doing things. Being yelled at, being publicly criticized, and being asked to cover for your manager are all inappropriate behaviors regardless of what you have done. Managers are supposed to motivate and manage their employees, and this type of behavior does neither. It’s not about you.

The next four tips are called the CARS Method. That makes it simple and easy to remember under stress:

  1. CONNECT with Empathy, Attention, and Respect: When Connie used to come to work each day, she tried to avoid having direct contact with her manager. She would quickly sneak into her office, hoping her manager didn’t see her. In consultation, she was encouraged to take the opposite approach: Try to briefly connect with the manager each morning when she came in. Such as:
  • “How was your weekend?” (Empathy)
  • “I’m interested in your thoughts on such-and-such project, so I know I’m covering the material you wanted.” (Attention)
  • “That was a great meeting you led last week.” (Respect)

Any or all of these types of statements (called “EAR Statements”) can put even a narcissistic manager in a positive mood for a few minutes. Narcissists like attention and praise. But be brief and then go to your office. Don’t linger or you’ll get sucked into a long conversation, and then blamed for not getting your work done.

  1. ANALYZE your options: Write a list of all the choices you have when you have a narcissistic boss. Your list might include looking for a job transfer within the organization, quitting, or finding someone in the workgroup you can feel comfortable with to cope. By writing such a list, you will see that you do have options, which will make you feel less trapped in your job. While the choices might not be great, just knowing you have choices can help. Also, writing a list helps your problem-solving brain take over, so your defensive brain doesn’t keep telling you how awful things are. Writing lists focuses your attention on problem solving, which usually helps you feel better.
  2. RESPOND to hostility or misinformation in writing: Connie’s manager occasionally sent e-mails to her team with criticizing comments about one employee or another. Once, she blamed Connie for a division report being late, when, in fact, Connie’s part was on time, and the manager turned it in late because of her own delays. (Narcissists often blame others for their own mistakes, just as they take credit for other’s accomplishments.) In consultation, Connie was told she could send an e-mail to the team briefly clarifying that her part of the report was done on time, using a technique called a BIFF Response (Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm). However, it also pointed was out that this could carry risks of enraging her manager and being seen as insubordination. Connie chose to just tell the others individually that she had done her job after all, which helped her feel better, too.
  3. SET LIMITS on high-conflict behavior: Narcissistic bosses don’t tend to stop themselves from their narcissistic behavior. They tend to repeat and repeat the same narrow pattern of offensive actions, picking on the people beneath them while kissing up to the people above them to protect their (exaggerated) image in the organization. This means the people beneath them may need to find a way to set limits themselves (or leave the team or organization). Sometimes this means matter-of-factly saying what you can and can’t do, such as: “You’ve asked me to do two tasks right away. Which one is your priority?” “I believe the organization’s policies don’t allow me to do what you have just told me to do.” Other times this means getting help from someone else in the organization. In Connie’s case, she asked a union representative to meet with her and her manager to address some of the issues that had come up. Her manager backed off after this one meeting. In another case, it might be asking Human Resources for some help, or an ombudsperson, or the manager’s supervisor.

After using these tools for a month or so, Connie reported back that she was now the manager’s favorite! Apparently, her EAR Statements were especially effective, as well as knowing there was someone else watching the manager’s behavior. She gained confidence in knowing her boss’ actions were “not about me” and she had choices. She no longer felt trapped and surprised herself with her ability to “manage her manager.”

Bill Eddy is the president of the High Conflict Institute based in San Diego, CA, and the author of several books, including “5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life: Identifying and Dealing with Narcissists, Sociopaths and Other High-Conflict Personalities” (2018, Perigee/Random House).

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