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April 6, 2016

Seven tips for dealing with your narcissistic boss

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This story was updated on July 5, 2018.

A narcissistic boss is tough to deal with, but a few simple strategies can help you maintain your sanity and productivity when working for a self-centered leader, Rebecca Knight writes for the Harvard Business Review.

7 must-have conversations between managers and employees

Research shows that narcissism is common among those in leadership positions, although the trait isn't always evident right away.  

"A narcissist comes across as charming, charismatic, and confident," says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, a professor of business psychology at University College London, and a faculty member at Columbia University. "He seems like the kind of person you want to work for—it's only later that you see the dark side."

Narcissism pervades many workplaces, but that doesn't mean you have to suffer. If your boss is more self-serving than team-oriented, the following tips can help you maneuver this tricky relationship. 

1: Understand what narcissism is

Just because your boss is egotistical doesn't necessarily mean that he or she is a narcissist.

"There's a difference between someone who's an egomaniac and puffed up with self-importance and someone who has a narcissistic personality," says Michael Maccoby, president of The Maccoby Group and author of "Strategic Intelligence: Conceptual Tools for Leading Change."

True narcissists are obsessed with living up to a certain ideal and won't let anything get in the way of their goals, says Maccoby. Get to know your boss' mentality, and you can strive for excellence alongside each other.

2: Take care of yourself

Working for a narcissistic boss is no easy feat, and it's important to be kind to yourself. De-stress by finding outlets unrelated to your work that boost your happiness and confidence. While it's always a good idea to find meaning outside of your job, it becomes especially crucial when your boss takes a toll on your emotional well-being.

3: Give your boss an ego boost

Narcissists relish flattery, which you can use as a tool to get on your boss' good side. That's not to say you should go overboard or alienate co-workers with praise for your boss, but a subtle compliment every once in a while is appropriate.

You can also take opportunities to commend your manager in front of his or her own boss. It may feel uncomfortable, but supporting your boss ultimately helps you, too, Chamorro-Premuzic says.

4: Watch and learn

You don't want to become a narcissist yourself, but emulating certain traits your boss possesses can teach you about being a better employee. Chamorro-Premuzic notes that many narcissists are skilled communicators and visionaries. See how they are able to inspire others and use those strategies in your own work.

5: Step lightly

Narcissists don't take criticism well. Challenge or undermine someone with a narcissistic personality, and he or she will fight back. If you must criticize your boss, do so in a way that is framed around concern for his or her success.

"Your boss doesn't care what is good for the company," Maccoby says. "However, if you're able to demonstrate that a certain strategy portends a disaster (or a victory) for your boss, you're much more likely to win him over."

6: Avoid gossip

Gossiping about a narcissistic boss is certainly tempting, but it's a bad idea in any work environment. Narcissists are paranoid, Maccoby says. And according to Chamorro-Premuzic, narcissists tend to seek out information on what people think of them. Don't risk it. Instead, vent to a therapist, family, or friends with no ties to your company or industry.

7: Consider if it's worth it

Even if you've mastered the art of navigating life with a narcissistic boss, all of the effort you've put in may not justify staying at your job. You might have stimulating work that you enjoy, or be on the way up the career ladder, and a self-involved boss just isn't that big a deal.

But if you're working for a "narcissist with a destructive philosophy of domination and control," Maccoby says, then "get out!" (Knight, Harvard Business Review, 4/1).

Learn more: 7 must-have conversations to have with your boss

Strong communication with staff is one of the hallmarks of an excellent manager. But communication can be an abstract concept, so we've identified seven specific conversations employees should have with their managers throughout their careers.

Download the Infographic

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