How to Survive Working for a Narcissistic Boss

by Mikaela Kiner on May 5, 2016 11:00:00 AM

How to Survive Working for a Narcissistic Boss by TINYpulseI still believe in the old adage: people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. Even if you’re in a good company with peers you like and are tasked with meaningful, challenging work, a boss can make it or break it when it comes to your happiness, productivity, and overall job satisfaction. Taking direction and being assessed by a narcissist is not easy. You’ll need to make a personal decision about whether to stick it out (and for how long) or whether and when to move on. Here are some things to be aware of.


It Takes a Toll

Don’t underestimate the impact. If you are unhappy but constantly telling yourself all the reasons you should not hate your job, you may need to accept that the impact of a bad boss is huge. You simply can’t be content even if everything other than the boss is going great. Take those feelings into account. Brene Brown reminds us that whether we like it or not, we are feeling beings who sometimes think, not the other way around. 


Set Boundaries

It’s important to know and document what’s expected of you because a narcissistic boss will create moving targets, set vague expectations and change them frequently, and hold different people to different standards. Document goals and timelines, clarify requests in writing to make sure the two of you are aligned, and send a written follow-up after every conversation.

Once you’ve reached an agreement or formulated a plan, confirm it in email. When the boss contradicts themself, calmly refer back to your earlier conversation. If they still dispute what you agreed to (as they often will), don’t be argumentative but do point to your notes for the facts.


Keep Your Composure

You’ll feel better if you’re able to stay calm. Even though your boss will get upset and angry, you want to keep things cordial. Don’t stoop to their level. It’s not easy when your boss is constantly contradicting you, questioning your abilities, and implying that they can do the job better than you.

Learn to recognize the tone of voice and body language they use when theyre getting out of control and going on a tirade. You’ll find that literally standing during meetings is a useful tool. It demonstrates that you’re strong and that you’re not going to tolerate their bad behavior. Be ready to walk out of the room if they lose control, and tell them you’d like the finish the conversation when theyre ready. Standing signals that the conversation is escalating to an inappropriate level. There’s a reason the phrase stand up for yourself is so popular.


Build a Network

In many organizations, there isn’t a strong practice of peer and 360 feedback, so the boss is still the judge and jury when it comes to your performance, rating, and pay. Focus on keeping a positive relationship with your team, peers, stakeholders, and customers.

Seek out trusted members of the leadership team who can act as a proxy for the boss from time to time. If they’re influential, you may score some wins while minimizing interactions with your manager. If you have buy in from loyal members of their staff or glowing customer feedback, it’s less likely that they’ll find fault with your work.


Toughen Up

Self-awareness and resiliency go a long way in situations like this. Pay attention to what you’ve delivered and celebrate small wins. Learn to separate objective from subjective feedback. Narcissists will find fault where none exists.

When the boss gives you feedback, consider whether it’s consistent with what you’re hearing from others. If their feedback is out of line and there’s simply no validity to it, you have the right to disregard it.

Remember, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Your boss simply will not notice all the good work you’re doing. Still, you want to do the best you can given the environment, tools, and resources at your disposal. But recognize that without your boss’s sponsorship, some tasks will be difficult or impossible.


Take Care of Yourself

Make sure you have a mentor or coach you can confide in. Maybe it’s your therapist. Having a confidential relationship with an objective third party gives you a place to vent and brainstorm. It will also help you get perspective on the situation you’re in.

Be intentional about how much you exercise and sleep. Eat well, and spend time with family. Get a regular massage, see a movie, or go for a hike to stay energized and level headed.


Know When to Go

Setting boundaries puts you in control of the situation and prevents you from feeling helpless. For example, you may decide that if your boss blows up three more times, you’ll leave. Knowing that you have options can give you peace of mind. Even if you’re not being asked to do anything unethical or illegal, there may be things that don’t sit right with you.

Say you’re asked to work in a way that’s not in the best interest of the company, its managers, or its leaders. If you sense an irreparable conflict in values, you’ll know it’s time. When you no longer want to recruit friends into the company and feel disingenuous selling the company to prospective candidates, it’s hard to continue. Once you lose all respect for your leader, there’s no turning back. Under those circumstances, you’ll be much happier when you find a company you can whole heartedly endorse.




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This post was written by Mikaela Kiner

Mikaela is a native Seattleite, and her resume is a who’s who of iconic Northwest companies including Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, PopCap Games, and Redfin. After fifteen years in HR, Mikaela took the leap and became an entrepreneur. Starting uniquelyHR allowed her to be creative, add value, and limit bureaucracy in a field that many leaders love to hate. Clients appreciate her combination of strategic thinking and hands-on execution.

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