Stop Tolerating Narcissistic Leaders

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Have you ever said or heard coworkers complain, “My boss is a jerk! I asked for some help, and he said if I was so stupid that I couldn’t figure it out for myself, I shouldn’t be in my job.” Or “I was so humiliated when my boss laughed at an idea I brought up in a team meeting. I won’t make that mistake again.”

If so, you aren’t alone. These are classic examples of employees who have narcissistic bosses that really don’t know how to lead and use a variety of tactics to make it look like others are incompetent.

It is important to make a distinction between people who use narcissistic defences (narcissists) versus those who have a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings.” One of the key differences is that the narcissist is not mentally ill and does not have a personality disorder. They may use the same defensive strategies; however, their self-esteem is not as fragile as those with the disorder, and they can develop new behaviours. They seem the same because they use the same dysfunctional behaviours to achieve their agenda.

Clearly, the emotionally driven behaviour of the narcissistic boss and how to deal with them is a highly searched theme these days because there seem to be so many leaders who can’t manage their egos or emotions. And while they are charming, engaging, and so much fun to work with at their best, they are relentless in getting their needs met at the expense of their employees and peers. Devaluation, shaming and gaslighting are only a few of the strategies narcissistic leaders use to ensure everyone is mirroring how great they are. The organizational dysfunctions these leaders create in organizations are significant, abundant and highly destructive. Not knowing how to deal with them to protect yourself and the organization only complicates this dysfunction.  

The Rise of the Narcissistic Leader

People who are narcissistic become leaders because they feel entitled to the place at the top. They don’t always have the skill or competence to lead, but their ever-present self-interest and survival instincts cause them to be very successful. Charismatic and influential, they stand out from their peers. They tend to be outgoing, socially confident and enthusiastic. Others are naturally drawn to them and are happy to follow and work hard to please them. Narcissistic leaders expect others to do what they want and follow them without question. They inflate their image to impress those above them to get what they want.

Unfortunately, promoting a person who is narcissistic into a leadership role without a strong boss, clear expectations, and an accountability strategy will have a strong, negative impact on employees, outcomes and the organizational culture. Narcissists may be good at rising to power within an organization, but their success usually doesn’t last long and the damage they do can be significant. Once people see past the image of who they are and what they are actually capable of doing, it is too late. Studies have shown that narcissistic managers are generally rated as average for problem-solving skills but below average for “leadership skills, interpersonal skills and integrity.” Their inability to empathize, share credit, and develop their people leads to poor bench strength and a fear-based culture.  

Tips for Dealing with a Narcissistic Leader

A narcissistic leader can negatively impact every aspect of organizational life. It creates dysfunction and gets in the way of productivity, employee development, achieving business goals and team cohesiveness. Here are a few tips on managing their behaviour and your own at work.

1. Know Yourself and Your Self-Protective Persona

Dealing with a narcissistic boss, peer, or employee means that you need to know yourself and your own self-protective persona. Narcissists trigger our nervous system, especially when they attack, blame or criticize us for their issues. Our fear causes us to react to protect ourselves from feeling devalued, embarrassed or useless. Just because they devalue you doesn’t mean you have to prove yourself. Identify your “triggers or buttons” and your self-protective responses. And know your own worth, independently of the narcissist’s valuation of you and the way they make you feel.

2. Manage Them, Don’t Enable Them

Don’t forget that there is a child in an adult body when you are dealing with a narcissist. If you tend to be permissive; to rationalize their behaviour; or to indulge them in the hopes you will get something in return, that will never happen. You don’t have to compromise yourself and contribute to their dysfunction. You have authentic power and authority to speak the truth, correct inaccuracies and take credit for your own work should they try to usurp you. You aren’t a victim unless you choose to be.

3. Don’t Take Their Behaviour Personally

Narcissists are at the mercy of their impulses. It doesn’t mean you have to be too. It’s important that you exercise self-management and not react to their behaviour. Getting angry or fighting with a narcissist makes you look bad and gives them ammunition to attack you with. The way they make you feel doesn’t define you; it is about them. Stay objective, and don’t make their behaviour about you! Practice self-management and non-defensive communication.

4. Set Boundaries

Many people let narcissists cross their boundaries and then get angry at them when they do. We must set, maintain and reinforce our boundaries and have real consequences when they fail to respect them. This must be done in a non-emotional way. Establish the terms of your interactions and behaviours that won’t be tolerated, so they are clear of your boundaries and honour your commitment to applying consequences. 

5. Don’t Deceive Yourself

They are self-involved, and their agenda comes first. They really aren’t interested in others or how others feel. Don’t deceive yourself or pretend the behaviour of a narcissist is like everyone else’s because it isn’t. They think they are superior and everyone else should change and adapt to them. That isn’t going to change unless they want to. You must accept them for who they are, manage their behaviour, or leave. Don’t think they can be different than they are and try to fix them.

6. Stop Blaming the Narcissist

It’s so easy to blame the narcissist because they are so overt with their dysfunctional behaviour. Yet if you let a kid run a candy store, who is really to blame when they get sick from eating too much candy? Narcissists may seem to be the problem, but if we are conscious, autonomous human beings who continue to enable them, we must look to ourselves. We aren’t helpless and don’t have to compromise our integrity to keep a job or so we don’t get yelled at. Our behaviour can be just as problematic as theirs and we know better! We need to take charge of the relationship and be ready to manage up, down and across.  While we may not be able to change their behaviour, we can maintain our own integrity; not take their behaviour personally; prevent acting out; and provide oversight to ensure damage control.

 


Heather Dranitsaris-Hilliard will be presenting “Tips from the Trenches on Shifting Culture and Leadership Through DEI” topic at  HR Conference & Expo in Vancouver on May 2-3, and virtually on May 11. 

Heather Dranitsaris-Hilliard is an expert in behavioural, organizational and leadership transformation. An energetic and inspirational speaker, co-author (“So, You Think You Can Lead?”, “Who Are You Meant To Be?”, “Power Past the Imposter Syndrome”), podcast host (“Dismantling Dysfunction”), and consultant, she works with clients to dismantle dysfunctions, achieve higher levels of performance, and realize potential at the personal, team, leader, and organizational levels. Contact her at 416-406-3939 x1, hhilliard@caliberleadership.com, or www.dranitsaris-hilliard.com.

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