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Narcissist Bosses: What Can You Do?

Welcome to the October edition of Bully-Free Workplace Monthly. I’m Valerie Cade, and I’m the founder of How to Have a Bully Free Workplace. A lot of people are saying, “What do I do with my boss?” There are different types of bosses. Someone once said, “What interests my boss fascinates the heck out of me.” Which would really mean whatever a boss is interested in, we should be interested in also. But what if your boss is interested in themselves? Me, myself, and Irene. What if their main concern in their life is themselves? Well, there’s a name for this, and it’s called the narcissistic manager. So, some of you might be having this situation with your difficult boss, where you will attempt to reach out to your boss for guidance and direction, only to be left with a feeling of depletion and rejection because your boss has failed to notice your accomplishments, what you are doing, or even guiding you. There are varying degrees of narcissism, so that’s what we’re going to cover here in this edition of Bully-Free Workplace Monthly.

So there are many types of people in the world, aren’t there? If we did a survey of people from all over the world that are subscribing to our Bully-Free Workplace Monthly, and asked them to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 the effectiveness of their boss, I would think it would break down something like this. Probably 3% of bosses should be knighted, perhaps given a saintship like Mother Teresa. They are wonderful people. We are in awe of them. And as I’ve said, they would probably represent, 3% of the people. We would call that “world-class”. Maybe some of you are “world-class” bosses. But that leaves 97%.

The next level would represent what I would call “first-class“. Not world-class, but first-class. 20% of people are usually in this category. First-class means the boss would ideally want to do their best. Their heart is in the game. They want to do whatever they can to make sure that their employees are actually enjoying their job and they are productive. The difference between first-class and world-class, however, is that the first-class boss might not always follow through with their behavior. They fall in love with potential. And they are not actually making sure, each and every time, that they do listen, that they do the performance review. But they believe in it.

Maybe you’re like that with exercise. Have you ever seen those commercials for an ab roller, an exercise machine on TV, and you say, “You know what, this time I’m going to order it. 3 easy payments of $27.95. And I’m going to have a six-pack ab.” Well, you fall in love with potential, you use your credit card to buy this, and it comes in the mail, and it arrives on a Wednesday. And you think to yourself, “Well, it’s the middle of the week. Why would I open this up? I should only start an exercise program at the beginning of the week.” Even though you fell in love with the idea of being totally fit while you were watching TV. Your heart is in this, but your actions are not. Some of our bosses are like that. Their heart is in it, but their actions are not. That’s 20%. So if you added 20% plus 3%, those of you that love math, that would be 23%. So 1 out of 4 bosses would be the ones you would say, “You know what, I could buy them a Christmas card, I could buy them a Christmas present. I could even send them something on their birthday. I might even listen to their golf game and not even be upset about it, because I really like this boss.” But that’s 1 out of 4.

50% of bosses are what we call “average”. Or “vanilla”. Did you know that vanilla ice cream is the most popular ice cream in the world? It’s because it’s safe. There’s no color to it. There’s no real flavor, I guess it’s vanilla, but there’s no additional flavors. It’s what you call your basic ice cream. And a lot of bosses are what we call basic. They come to work doing the basics. And then the employees are left with wanting more. Their heart may or may not be in their job. Now what happens here is, the employees who work for someone like this often feel let down. Some people will take it personally and think that they are not doing good enough. Some people will think, “Gosh, if I was just a better employee, my boss would notice me.” That’s not always true. Even if you’re an average employee, a great boss will still notice you.

Underneath the vanilla zone, we have what we call a “sub-average crisis”. It’s not first-class, it’s not world-class, it’s not average, it’s what we call sub-average crisis. 20% of bosses reside in this area. This is the type of difficult boss that actually is going against the productivity of a company, and not encouraging their employees to be their best. They may full well know what to do, but they have chosen not to do it. They are acting out. They might be jealous. They might be trying to gain control and they do it knowingly. Somebody in the average “vanilla” zone may do these things, but they do it unknowingly. They will be what we call difficult. Somebody in the sub-average zone will be doing this knowingly.

When it’s unknowingly, it can be forgivable. You can have a dialog with somebody. You can try your influencing skills to try and position your boss in a different light. But when someone is in the sub-average zone, you have no chance. They’re doing it knowingly. Bullies in the workplace do things knowingly. Why? To gain control.

The last group, 7% of all bosses, is what we call counter-productive or “slugs”. People are not born as “slugs”, but they act that way. These are extreme bullying situations, where there’s perhaps harassment, even violence, where the employee is suffering physically, mentally, socially, spiritually; where you’ve tried numerous attempts to try to rectify the situation and to no avail.

So for those of you listening today, we said we would cover the narcissistic manager. Why are we looking at this? Well, in our feedback, we found that there was one character trait that a lot of bosses who are bullying their employees have in common, and that is the concept of narcissism. Knowing that maybe 1 out of 4 bosses would suffer from this gives it some perspective. There’s a saying, “Copernicus was wrong; I’m the center of the universe.” Somebody who has narcissistic tendencies is primarily concerned with themselves. Often they are preoccupied with their own accomplishments, which allows them no room to really notice yours. They are often very arrogant and they will devalue others in order to reposition themselves as the authority and the one that will gain all the credit. And interestingly, they will often take what we call a sense of entitlement to make sure that they are noticed first.

Some of your bosses that you work for might boast or brag and they might go on and on about it. Some people who have this narcissistic behavioral tendency will often take credit for things that they did not even do, and actually get you to believe that you had no right claiming any rights to anything that you’ve done. It has to be turned over to them. They will often exaggerate the facts to make themselves look better and they will often diminish anything that you have done. So what do we do with this?

Most people in the workplace grew up in a family with a mother or father, or somebody that looked out for them. When we were growing up as children, we wanted their approval in some ways. We cannot help it – that’s the way we are as people. Well, the very grid that I just shared with you for bosses i.e. world class, first class, average, sub-average and counter-productive – can also be seen for parents as well. How many of us had parents that applauded us as we were growing up? Not everybody had a parent that actually encouraged growth and development. So what happens now is we go to the workplace and we are looking for that reinforcement from our boss. If your parents weren’t rewarding or acknowledging you properly, and your boss is a narcissist, you’re going to have a double wound here.

Well, here is the awareness factor. In our book, Bully Free At Work, we talk about how we can be waiting years for some acknowledgement from a boss, or from a parent, and it will just never come. Here’s the tip: as soon as you understand that the narcissist will never change, or the bully boss will never change, then you can really start looking at bully proofing yourself. How do you do this? The very first thing is to be understanding of the fact that somebody who is a narcissist will not change. Do you know that for some people who really do suffer from narcissism, they are incapable of empathy? There is a neurotransmitter in the brain that does not function well for people that are incapable of empathy. People who have suffered with large degrees of narcissism have the inability here to actually empathize with what you’re going through.

So what does this mean? If you go to your boss with a problem, they have no idea how to encourage you, how to walk you through it, or even to hear what you’re saying. They are incapable of connecting with you. Furthermore, if they are an extreme narcissistic personality, then while you are talking, they are looking to take credit for themselves; you are a “bother” to them. It’s amazing how many people, due to the goodness of their hearts, will try to stay in these situations thinking that the boss will change. Do you know that someone who suffers from narcissism will also go to the lengths of putting you down to other people, to make sure that you are “really down”? They want to position you in such a way that you do not compete with them. It can be shocking to even look at this.

Why are certain people narcissistic? Many people will focus their attention on this area. I hate to say it, but you may never know the real reason why. Just know that it is. But for those of you that are not satisfied with that answer, here is one of the reasons why. Some people, when they are growing up, will experience such trauma in certain situations that they are not able to actually feel, because the situation was so devastating. At that point, they will shut down their feelings entirely and the neurotransmitters in the brain are rerouted. This leaves the person incapable of feeling at that level ever again; feeling joy for themselves, or being able to feel empathy, joy, concern, compassion for anybody else. It’s like they took a water tap and they shut it off for life.

So perhaps that helps you realize that their behavior says more about them than it does about you. Somebody who’s narcissistic – well, they appear overly self confident. But anybody that has to push their self confidence can be called arrogant. That’s destructive behavior. They have a high outward self confidence and they are not based in reality. They have a desire for power, wealth, and admiration. If they are not receiving enough admiration, they will start to take admiration away from others. This, in effect, is crazy-making. You may have done a job, very well, and all you want to do is say to your boss, “Hey, I’m done and it’s well done.” And your boss will do everything that they can to take that power away from you.

What we’re saying is, if you display any sense of power around someone who’s a narcissist, their first line is to try to take the power away. Most relationships are built on the dual agreement that you will have a real concern for others and their ideas, and you would not ever exploit or devalue another. Well, to someone who’s a narcissist, their concern is limited to expressing socially appropriate responses when convenient so they can tow the line. They will devalue and exploit others without any remorse.

Sometimes their attitude is just very convenient for gaining more power for themselves. What’s interesting to me here, and perhaps to you, is: What if you had a narcissist boss and they knew full well that they would be videotaped for the day. Would they still this carry out this kind of behavior, knowing that this videotape would be watched and that they would be pegged as an inappropriate boss? I don’t think so. So you see? They really are in that sub-average crisis zone. They are calculating their behaviors. They know full well what they’re doing. But perhaps, if we were to have any compassion at all for anyone that suffers from narcissism, they might not feel to the depths the despair that they are causing.

Sometimes this is the only thing that gives me hope – knowing that they might not even be fully aware of or in touch with the destruction that they are creating around them. You might say, “Gosh, my boss, they don’t even have the ability to follow through on things.” Well, that’s because they probably don’t have clear goals that are based on what’s best for the company or for other people. They only have goals that are only based on what’s best for them. So what happens is a lot of goals end up by shifting. They like concrete values. They are actually easily bored. And a lot of times, you’re wondering what the next move is.

So you might be saying, “Well, this is great to be aware of, but what do I do?”

Well, here are a few tips. As we say in our podcasts, articles, or responses to any emails that you send us, the first thing that you want to look at here is to bully proof yourself. What is bully proofing yourself when you have a boss that’s a narcissist? Step 1 is to become aware, and truly internalize the fact that you cannot influence them – this has to be an intervention. Don’t even spend one minute of your time thinking, “You know, if I was just a little nicer, if I did things just a little differently, they might come around.” Step 2: Know that there are some things that you could do less of or more of that can actually affect the culture. Someone who is narcissistic will be particularly toxic when under stress or when they are depressed. So pay particular attention to what would stress somebody out. Usually taking power or admiration away from them will cause some stress. They will be grasping, trying to get those things back. If you are okay with knowing it doesn’t matter who signs their name to a project, to a job well done, and you are okay with giving up the notion of being reinforced for your great duties and behaviors at work, that might be a small thing that you could do.

Long term, this situation is not healthy. You deserve the respect, and the attention, and the admiration for all of your accomplishments. The key in life here is that we could be waiting around for this respect for years and years and years, and it will never come.

Again, 3% of the bosses really get this. So the 97% still struggle. If you have any comments or questions in regard to anything to do with bullying in the workplace or narcissism, you can email us at info(at)howtohaveabullyfreeworkplace(dot)com. And our website is We receive such joy when hearing that somebody has actually gone through the steps in our book, the 21 assessment tools, and walked through bully proofing themselves and actually come out on the other side. The more I read these wonderful success stories, the more I realize that this CAN change. Will the bully change? Probably not. Can you change? Absolutely. That is where your power will reside.

So, as you go back to work this month, all over the world, would it help you to know that someone who has narcissistic behaviors is really doing so because of a lack in them? So they are trying to take all the power from you. We’ve said this many times, but somebody who bullies in the workplace looks at powerful people, compassionate people, kind people, and tries to take power from them in order to gain strength. Don’t let the bully do this to you. You actually do have control in this area.

So, we would love to hear back from you in terms of anything you would like to add or share with us. Your stories are very empowering. I will leave you with this. You could do something with this or not. Maybe 3% of the people will do something right away. Maybe 20% of the people will think about it and really believe in it. Maybe 50% will hum and ha, maybe somebody else has to go first, maybe they have to read this again or hear this again. 20% of you will fight it. For some reason, you might think you don’t deserve it. And 7% of you have stopped listening already. I’m challenging you to be the 3%. Why not start doing something now and bully proof yourself?

Join us again next month, to continue the adventure and the journey together to stop workplace bullying. Check us out at our website at Email us, share with us. Coming soon, we will be posting a blog on our website in order for people to have a safe, respectful culture in which to share their information anonymously. Gain insight and wisdom, in an effort to stop workplace bullying. I’m Valerie Cade, and we will see you next month.