From The Office’s Michael Scott to Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, narcissistic bosses are portrayed on TV and in movies as demanding, lacking in empathy, and pathologically self-important—which is preeetty much dead on, according to research.
In a 2011 study published in Psychological Science, researchers observed 150 people and found that those with narcissistic personalities made terrible leaders, because their self-centeredness interfered with the creative exchange of ideas and hindered group decision-making. In fact, narcissists often rise to the top precisely because they are so conceited. A study done at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that narcissists scored higher in simulated job interviews than equally-qualified non-narcissists. “[An interview] is one setting where it’s OK to say nice things about yourself and there are no ramifications. In fact, it’s expected,” co-author Peter Harms explained in a university press release.
The good news? Having a narcissistic boss doesn’t necessarily mean you need to give notice. Here, psychotherapist Joseph Burgo, PhD, the author of The Narcissist You Know ($25; amazon.com), shares some helpful tips for managing up.
RELATED: 10 Signs You Might Be a Narcissist
Figure out who you’re dealing with
Does your boss need to be the center of attention? Hold grudges? Give (often unsolicited) advice? These are all telltale signs of a narcissistic personality. But there are also workplace-specific red flags, says Burgo. “A narcissistic boss might be unable to compromise or accept input from the rest of the team,” he says. “They may also react defensively and with hostility to even constructive criticism.”
Other signs? Look out for a manager who is highly competitive, tries to sabotage the careers of his competitors, or must win every disagreement. “A narcissistic boss may also shoot down other people’s work, or try to take credit for it himself,” adds Burgo.
Pick your battles
Perhaps an important presentation goes poorly. Or your team reports low numbers for the second consecutive month. You suspect the the problem can be traced to decisions your manager made. But how do you say so without offending?
“An unwritten part of your job description, like it or not, is to protect your boss’s ego,” says Burgo. “If you challenge him or her directly, you’ll only make yourself a target of his hostility.”
If your boss does become angry at you, it may be best to hold off on trying to reason with her until after she’s cooled down, says Burgo. Phrases like, “I didn’t mean it that way” or “I’m only trying to help” will worsen the situation. Stick with a brief, simple apology—even if you don’t think you have anything to be sorry for.
“An apology will diffuse the assault,” says Burgo. “This may sound like cowardly advice, but going up against a narcissistic boss is a losing proposition.”
Filter the feedback you get
When she’s critiquing you, listen. Just because someone is a narcissist doesn’t mean her observations can’t be legit. But if you decide her words are not intended to be constructive, try not to take them personally. It can be difficult not to internalize your manager’s negativity. But remember that her negativity is not really about you, says Burgo.
Still fuming hours later? It may help to vent your frustrations to a friend or family member. Research has found that this type of gossiping can actually be therapeutic, since it helps reduce stress and can moderate your heart rate.
If you’re tempted to talk to a colleague, don’t. Even if you think he or she can relate, it’s not worth the risk that the conversation will get back to your boss.
Know when it’s time to move on
“Successfully managing a narcissistic boss means having a very strong ego,” says Burgo. “So don’t let his or her attacks damage your own self-esteem.” That said, if you feel increasingly bad about yourself, have trouble sleeping, or dread going to work every day, it may be time to look for another job.
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