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Surviving a narcissistic boss is actually 'quite easy,' says psychologist — here's how

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Key Points
  • A narcissistic boss negatively affects communication between employees, which, in turn, can damage the team's performance, according to a new study.
  • Although you'll ultimately want to quit or move teams, there are short-term solutions for dealing with a boss who has narcissistic tendencies.
  • "Flattery will get you everywhere," one expert says.

Narcissism is a common characteristic of top executives, including several notable ones: Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates both exhibit narcissistic tendencies, notes Harvard Business Review.

Narcissistic personality disorder is a condition where someone has an inflated sense of self-importance and serious lack of empathy for others.

Even if you haven't been employed by some of the world's most powerful founders or CEOs, it's likely that you've had a boss with narcissistic tendencies. When a team doesn't have a leader, for example, the most self-centered, narcissistic person is the most likely to fill the "boss" vacuum, according to a 2008 Ohio State University study.

Despite a narcissist's ability and desire to take charge, having one lead can actually hinder a team's performance, according to a new study published in the Strategic Management Journal. A narcissistic boss negatively affects communication between employees, which, in turn, can damage the team's performance.

Great managers are usually those who make make it "all about the team," says Brandon Smith, a therapist and executive coach known as The Workplace Therapist. But a narcissist can't do that. "Narcissists preserve power by keeping people separated," he says.

If your boss exhibits narcissistic tendencies, you need to find a way manage up, says Lisa Marie Bobby, a psychologist and the clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching in Denver, Colorado.

"A narcissist believes with all their heart and soul that they are, in fact, superior to other people," Bobby says. "They are smarter, more competent, more capable, they have better ideas and are just generally superior. They also want to be recognized for all those qualities."

Surviving a narcissistic boss is actually "quite easy" if you know what to do, Bobby says. Here are four ways to cope with a boss who has narcissistic tendencies.

A narcissist believes with all their heart and soul that they are, in fact, superior to other people
Lisa Marie Bobby
clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching

Be gratifying: 'Flattery will get you everywhere'

Be as gratifying as possible, in little and big ways.

"Laugh at their jokes," Bobby says. "Ask for their opinions. Defer to their judgment and make them feel good and, most importantly, make them look good. Flattery will get you everywhere."

They will never actually trust you and you will not receive any flattery in return, but it will make you useful to them.

Showering the boss in compliments makes you a less likely target, as narcissists can be quite vengeful, Smith adds.

"'[Flattering them] will make them turn their attention to someone else," he says. "They won't use their power or influence in a negative way around you."

Accept that you can't change them

Avoid bringing up their tendencies, Bobby says.

"Anything you do to confront them could be perceived as a threat," she says. "If it's a real narcissist they will react with rage."

Anything you do to confront them could be perceived as a threat. If it's a real narcissist they will react with rage.
Lisa Marie Bobby

'Stay calm and don't take anything personally'

People with narcissistic tendencies didn't get the attention they needed early in life, Bobby says. Having empathy for that experience can help you feel less slighted by their behavior.

"Stay calm and don't take anything personally," she says "There is nothing to be upset over. We don't have to be upset that other people are the way they are."

Some workers will be able to handle a narcissist boss better than others. An idealist, for example, might have a harder time dealing with certain traits, Bobby says.

"If you think, 'this is not how people should behave. We should be collaborative and I should be treated with fairness and respect,' if you have these internal messages, you're going to feel bad," she says.

People who are "pragmatic and have radical acceptance," will likely fair better working under a narcissist, she says.

Have an exit plan

Even though there are ways to manage up and deal with a narcissist boss, you should make plans to leave your team or company. With a narcissist leading your team, it's hard to succeed and thrive.

"You're not gonna get the platform you need in the workplace," Smith says. "You're not gonna get the promotion opportunities. You're not going to see recognition of your work."

Ultimately, you will want to find a way out and work for a boss who cares about your future.

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