Working with a narcissistic boss

Wednesday 18 July 2018
Elizabeth Williamson's picture
Elizabeth Williamson
Conflict Management Specialist

One of the most frequent problems in corporate counselling services is significant psychological damage from micro-managing, hypervigilant and narcissistic managers.

But, there’s a common mistake people make when trying to deal with those volatile, often unpredictably aggressive managers: it’s using logic and reason to try to engage with someone who is largely irrational and emotionally driven.

Picture that time at work when you used rational explanations for a good business case, only to find you were humiliated in a meeting or received an abrupt, angry email. Unsure why your boss would be making accusations of you undermining their authority, you now find you’re being targeted, and they are on the defensive. 
Dealing with your narcissistic boss can be difficult, but not impossible.

Your narcissistic boss’ defensive behaviours can derail your attempts to manage the situation and give more ammunition to these personalised attacks. To make sure you don’t fall into defensiveness, avoid these three common errors:

1. Don’t Do This: Prepare logical, detailed explanations to try to justify your idea or position. Don’t apologise or cajole. Your explanation is not the issue and your manager will not be listening to consider options or be convinced – rather they are likely to be making notes about how to crush any attention, and retaliate. The more you over-explain, the more likely they will find opportunity to use this to humiliate you or exhaust you to prove this evidence and proceed on their self-aggrandising strategy. 

Do This: Stay concise and put forward limited, information only statements. Frame issues to support their position and status, especially to level up leadership. You may have to accept that your ideas will become theirs in due course. It’ not ideal but more likely to keep you safer. 

2. Don’t Do This: Point out flaws in their logic, (or ill-logic). Your comments will be seen as criticism and therefore as counter-attack. It will be potential for game-on and all-out war. Narcissistic people don’t give ground. They hold long grudges. Narcissists lack insight into their thinking and behaviours, and often become agitated and aggressive if they perceive disagreement will threaten their position. 

Do This: Stay personable and professional at all times; avoid tit for tat. Present the information or actions you are responsible for and outline these with clear limits. Identify a possible gap or risk without attributing responsibility or strategy to resolve this, unless requested. Demonstrate the gap. Leave the solution to the person responsible: your manager.

3. Don’t Do This: Complain about the process. Invite a reflective conversation about how things could be improved in your working relationship. When the subject matter involves empathy or emotions, you’re in big trouble. Narcissists are not motivated by care and are likely to be frustrated and retaliate if the focus of attention moves from their needs to yours. 

Do This: Let HR know about these issues. Set your limits about the settings and amount of engagement that is safe. Find a colleague who can help you step back and observe this dynamic more calmly. Find a skilled counsellor to debrief with, or conflict coach to set strategies to manage the particular behaviours that you’re being manipulated by.

Elizabeth Williamson is a highly respected relationship skills and conflict management specialist with more than 30 years’ experience working as a leadership consultant, couples and family therapist, and nationally accredited mediator. She has facilitated complex workplace mediations for major banks such as CBA, retailers including a national cosmetic brand, government departments including Education Department, SMEs and NGOs. Find her here.