How to deal with a narcissistic boss

For HR, narcissists are the worst possible kind of leader

How to deal with a narcissistic boss

Does your CEO demand unwavering loyalty? Do they refuse to take accountability for their mistakes? Or blame others when something goes wrong? Well, then, you may be dealing with a narcissistic boss. Aptly named after the vain Greek youth Narcissus, narcissistic people are often self-obsessed and self-serving – making successful leaders yet unpalatable colleagues. For HR practitioners, having a narcissist at the helm of your company can be a nightmare. Everything from hiring to firing, strategy to diversity, becomes a minefield – leaving practitioners stressed, depressed, and overwhelmed. Here, HRD looks at the best ways to handle a narcissistic leader, how to rise above the drama and take the HR highroad.

Read more: ‚Äč10 signs your boss is a raging narcissist

How to spot a narcissist

Up to five percent of the global population are narcissists, with the trait accounting for one in ten personality disorders. The truth is narcissism can take many different forms across a wide, varying, spectrum - making spotting one tricky. The main traits of a narcissistic leader are;

  • A need for admiration
  • A lack of empathy
  • An exaggerated ago
  • A sensitivity to critique

It’s important to point out that most people will exhibit one or more of these traits on occasion – and that having a bad day isn’t tantamount to being a narcissist. A narcissist will showcase these characteristics on a daily basis – regularly and forcefully – without shame or remorse. Narcissistic CEOs have trouble respecting boundaries – and for HR this can be super chaotic. Has your boss ever ordered you to implement a badly thought out people strategy without consulting you first? Then blamed you when it inevitably went wrong? Are their mood swings becoming increasingly hard to handle? Or do they simply show no respect for your department or your team? Consider how it impacted your team’s morale – and what the overall repercussions were.

Don’t take it personally

Now you’ve identified what you’re working with, it’s time to take a step back and assess the situation. A recent report from Leadership Quarterly found a direct correlation between narcissism and level of organizational seniority. Essentially, the higher you go in the company the more likely you are to come across narcissists. Anecdotally, the same report also highlighted that narcissists find their way to the CEO position much quicker than their counterparts. When dealing with one, try not to take their remarks personally - narcissists rarely recognise they’re hurting people. Next time your boss makes an inappropriate comment about your abilities or patronises you in front of your team, just stay calm.

Read more: How to spot a narcissist at work

Minimize conflict

An estimated $395 billion is lost each year because of workplace conflict, with 49% this attributed to “warring egos”. Minimizing conflict at work is an artform HR leaders have perfected over time. In the midst of the chaos, in the heat of an argument, HR always has to refrain from biting back. Use this skill when you’re dealing with your CEO. No matter what they say, or how offensive it is, keep a level head. At the same time, don’t allow yourself to be beaten down and bullied by misbehaving leaders. Speaking to HRD, Peter Walmsley, chief people officer at GSN Games, advocated remaining true to yourself – and not backing down.

“When dealing with a narcissistic boss, it’s important to remain true to yourself,” Walmsley told us. “Above all, don't get sucked into their behaviour – refuse to pander to it. Keep your guiding principles close to your heart and conduct yourself with pride. Decide how you want to live your life.”

Educate your leadership team

Change only happens through direct action. If you’re worried that your boss is displaying narcissistic tendencies, and that his C-suite executives are only making the situation worse through enablement, bring the issue to the table. A report from Future Business Journal looked at this by studying the prevalence of narcissism in Pakistan’s banking sector. The research showed that leadership style had a direct impact on employee morale and retention.

The study concluded that “leaders who exaggerate about their accomplishments and have narcissistic personality cannot satisfy their subordinates”. Instead, the authors of the study posited, leaders should encourage rather than attack.

“If management wants their employees to perform better, leaders should not exploit others for their self-interests, rather support them,” the report reads. “Narcissistic leadership style elevates stress levels of the employees and ultimately affects workplace environment and individual well-being.”

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