Yet Another Management Challenge: Coping With the Narcissistic Boss

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Of all the offensive managerial types, the narcissist has got to be one of the worst.

For our purposes, the term “narcissist” does NOT refer to those with narcissistic personality disorder (although God knows you don’t want someone with this diagnosis in your workplace). Instead, we’ll be talking about your garden-variety but nonetheless dangerous self-serving and self-loving boss.

That’s enough bad news for one day.

Hallmarks of the narcissistic boss

Narcissistic bosses believe the world would be a much better place if everyone were just like them.

Employees toiling under these self-centered tyrants quickly begin to feel stifled, demoralized, and unappreciated. And no wonder. Each of us is a unique human being with a distinctive personality, temperament, and worldview. It doesn’t feel good when someone attempts to suppress our wills by imposing theirs.

Also, narcissists tend to be sneaky little so-and-sos. They’ll pretend to be “nice” when it suits their purposes, but when it doesn’t watch out! Naturally, their employees receive the brunt of their malice.

What’s more, narcissistic bosses set people up for failure. Demands are communicated haphazardly and with a near total lack of transparency. Data without context is a specialty; narcissists are crazy tight-fisted with information. The poor soul responsible for pleasing an implacable narcissist often finds him- or herself in a damned if you do/damned if you don’t position.

It’s a puzzle. How can someone provide so much detail (these folks are micromanagers for sure) and still be so terrible at communicating what they want?

Yes, they’re “difficult,” too

But perhaps worst of all, narcissists have no sense of humor about themselves. Zilch. Zippo. Nil. As such, they are prickly, oversensitive to criticism, and dishonest (“Admit a mistake? Hell no. I’ll just pretend you misunderstood or blame someone else …”).

They are, in a word, “difficult” to work with. Not that they actually care to work with anyone. Narcissists are the ultimate non-team playing players.

In a nutshell, narcissistic bosses are:

  • Emotionally shallow;
  • Lacking in empathy;
  • Ridiculously self-absorbed;
  • Envious; and,
  • Untrustworthy.

But, narcissists have two things in their favor:

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  1. They’re great at sucking up to those they deem important; and,
  2. They’re completely shameless and will do most anything to meet their dastardly goals. As a result, they’re talented at catching the rest of us off guard and unprepared to deal with someone whom we couldn’t fathom would do that.

Handling the narcissistic manager

First, accept that you must do something, because inaction is not a responsible option. Narcissists are toxic to teams, partly because they’re envious and will deliberately sabotage others’ success and partly because they annoy the heck out of people.

Second, if the narcissist is someone you hired, admit this wasn’t your best decision and move on. Pretending that nothing is wrong will only compound the problem.

Third, let your ethics be your guide. We often know the right thing to do but talk ourselves out of doing it to avoid inconvenience, embarrassment, shame, or some other perceived loss. Please don’t do that now. Whatever circle of influence your narcissistic employee has, he or she is probably using it for no good—or more to the point, no one else’s good.

Fourth, don’t be fooled. Narcissists care very little for you or your company goals, no matter what they say to the contrary.

Fifth, listen. If you have a narcissist in your workplace, you’ll know it, because he or she is forever ruffling somebody’s feathers. Interpersonal conflict and narcissists are like salt and pepper—where one is you can usually find the other. A real tale-tell sign? When you start to listen, you’ll begin to hear from people who typically don’t butt heads with anyone.

Sixth, hope for rehabilitation, but prepare for separation. The challenge of managing interpersonal conflict is that everyone has a point of view. So be doubly careful when disciplining a narcissist. Document everything. Provide reasonable chances. Exercise compassion but be firm. One bad apple shouldn’t be allowed to spoil your barrel.

You can do better

Don’t believe the hype of the brilliant, narcissist boss who drives his people to wild heights of success with his unwavering commitment to innovation and excellence (think Steve Jobs, or at least what people say about Steve Jobs.)

That’s crap. Most narcissistic bosses are average-performing little despots skilled at smoke and mirrors. If they won’t do better, I guarantee you can.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at


7 Comments on “Yet Another Management Challenge: Coping With the Narcissistic Boss

  1. This is great, but I would add one thing: Beware of narcissistic vengence. They can be downright mean and vindictive. Take copious notes, and keep your cool, even if you take difficult action.

    1. Oh indeed. Malignant narcissists (those who DO have NPD AND who have strong antisocial tendencies or are even sociopathic, are dangerous SOBs.

  2. Everything you wrote in your post is very true. Such bosses always want to ride, push and shove people to do more and more for them to get all the credits. They never satisfy with how much, how hard employees work and how much they have gotten.

  3. Just one comment/correction, what you are describing IS quite definitely a boss with narcissistic personality disorder. Everything you’re describing is an NPD boss to a T.

  4. Well I had the displeasure of having a lady with that exact diagnosis get hired as my supervisor at a state psychiatric hospital over the admissions department and it almost destroyed my whole life to the point I sadly have to admit that when this lady drove a fellow co-worker to commit suicide and what was so sad about it was he was actually a good guy who like me and the others she chose to harras and torment treated the citizens of my home state with courtesy and respect and we took our ethics and code of conduct serious. While she worked at this hospital I watched a friend and co-worker being tormented by this lady for no reason other than we were all in classified positions and this supervisor was not but another co-worker cut her wrist me myself it got so bad I ended up seeing a psychiatrist that I knew well but was not good withe his patients and he almost killed me by putting me on a medication that turned out was very dangerous and was the reason I found out I had been living with a brain tumor after a MRI was done and then I even had brain surgery and this lady would just get worse and never let up on any of us like she sadistically enjoyed it. She allowed a patient to be abused by a male co-worker who became friends with this lady and when 4 honest co-workers told the truth about the state employee in question abusing the patient she not only got that guy to be able to keep his job but she fired the 4 employees that told the truth in quick session and got away with that. She also had someone who went to work at the hospital where my brain surgery was performed get my personal supposedly confidential information and told everyone she could. To top it off she plays tennis with my sister and the bad psychiatrist I just mentioned. She some how manipulated my own siblings with one who is not hard to manipulate because she is in my opinion a type of personality disorder also but that hospital was closed down in 2011 and she is still finding ways to harass and torment me via my own siblings who 2 worked for the state also. Can anyone tell me when this old supervisor will stop her campaign against me and if so is it with my actual death that will only make her stop? I don’t plan on hurting myself but I have to get justice against this awful person.

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