4 Survival Tips If You Work for a Narcissist, According to a Psychologist

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Your friend’s boss is making her work this weekend in order to get everything ready for a big client presentation on Monday. Sure, that’s definitely annoying. And when your spouse complains about his manager getting on his case for being late one morning, you totally get his frustration. These are pretty normal workplace niggles. But what do you do if you’re dealing with someone at work who isn’t just slightly irritating, they’re an actual narcissist

Per psychologist and author Mateusz Grzesiak, Ph.D. (aka Dr. Matt), it’s more common than you’d think. “Organizations tend to hire narcissists as bosses because they want to have someone who is charismatic and full of himself because he’s going to focus on results,” he tells us. (Note: Dr. Matt tells us that 80 percent of narcissists are men, while the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders puts the number at 50 to 75 percent.)

In fact, the higher up you go, the more likely you are to encounter people with narcissistic traits. “When someone climbs the ladder, it gives them more control,” says Dr. Matt. “And because of the status they have, they can have more admirers. The same way a drug addict is addicted to drugs, a narcissist is addicted to admiration.”

Here are five signs that you may be dealing with a narcissist in the workplace.

  • They take credit for everything. “A narcissist has to value himself by his achievements, so your success will be his success,” Dr. Matt tells us.
  • It’s impossible to criticize them. As long as you admire the narcissist, you’re fine. But any type of criticism will be poorly received because this causes them to feel rejected.
  • They’re control freaks. “Narcissists want to control and they want to lead—even if they are not good leaders,” Dr. Matt says. Cue your manager micromanaging every single project you’re on—including which bagels to order for tomorrow’s breakfast meeting.
  • They're know-it-alls. “Forget about microanalysis of the market or trends. A narcissist believes he can achieve anything he wants because he is the best.”
  • They do not apologize. Nope, not even when it’s totally their fault. Even worse? A narcissist can also be a bully.

Does any of this sound eerily familiar? Here are four tips for how to cope when you’re working with a narcissist.

1. Leave the company. No, really. “For your own mental health, leave your organization and go to a different place,” advises Dr. Matt, although he also points out that narcissism is on the rise (blame the increase of society valuing the “self” instead of the collective whole). In other words, you could leave your current job and end up working for yet another narcissist. So the other option is learning how to manage this person. Which brings us to our next point…

2. Set boundaries. If you know that someone is a narcissist, you need to distance yourself by setting boundaries so that they don’t bully or criticize you, says Dr. Matt. Here’s an example: Your boss loves to come over to your desk for long rants about how amazing he is (or how incompetent everyone else is). The fix? You tell him that you value his time so you’ve set up a monthly check-in meeting with him that should give you plenty of opportunities to go over your work. (But if your boss does something really crazy, like hurls insults at you, don’t hesitate to get your HR manager involved.)

3. Try a feedback sandwich. Let’s say your boss took credit for your hard work at a meeting with the head honchos upstairs. Take him aside and give him a “feedback sandwich.” (Remember, a narcissist’s self-worth comes from being admired by others, so you don’t want to do this in front of other people.) Here’s what that might look like: “I really love working for you because you’re such a great boss. But if you don’t mind, the next time you talk about me in front of the CEO, could you please say something about all the extra hours I’ve been putting in on this project? It’s going so well, and I feel like you and I have really been spearheading this whole thing.”

4. Imagine him as a 5-year-old. Dr. Matt let us in on a brilliant insight: Inside every narcissist is a little kid who feels scared and rejected by their parents. They construct a mask that’s full of themselves where they are omnipotent, controlling and know absolutely everything. But it’s only a mask. “It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that they have something against you, but the truth is that they have something against themselves.” So the next time your narcissistic boss insists on overseeing every minor detail of your job, try to imagine him as a 5-year-old. It just might give you some compassion. (Or at the very least, stop you from throwing your keyboard at the wall.) 

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Executive Editor

Alexia Dellner is an executive editor at PureWow who has over ten years of experience covering a broad range of topics including health, wellness, travel, family, culture and...