All Articles Leadership Inspiration Surviving the whims of a narcissistic leader

Surviving the whims of a narcissistic leader

5 min read


At a recent talk, a member of the audience shared with us a story about a manager in her organization and a particularly unfortunate decision he made that had a significant impact on his employees.

A colleague had fulfilled a lifelong personal and professional goal; and as a result, a handful of co-workers conspired to assemble a small congratulatory after-work event to recognize her accomplishments. Upon telling the manager of the plans for a small celebration, the manager opted not to hold the celebration without any reason given. Nothing was said of it ever again and the congratulations to the employee never came through.

While the employee who accomplished her goal never knew of the celebration (and therefore never felt disappointed about the manager’s decision), the co-workers who intended to create a grand gesture noted that the experience was particularly heartbreaking. The effort to selflessly “do good” unto a fellow employee and lift the department’s morale would play second fiddle to the desires of a narcissistic leader.

Working with a narcissistic leader can be terrifying and frustrating – with many wondering how someone so incapable of developing employees and goodwill can advance within an organization. Narcissistic leaders can be both healthy and destructive for organizations. They are characterized by:

  • A controlling personality: rife with arrogance, self-importance, a strong sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy for others, a pre-occupation with power, a need to feel extremely special and unique, and a desire for excessive admiration from others.
  • Being thin-skinned: sensitive to perceived disrespect and criticism, suspicious of others, paranoid, abrasive, and dismissive of others.
  • A preference to keep others at a distance or surround themselves with those only who will agree with them and their vision.
  • A lack of interest in mentoring others.
  • Elevating (or exaggerating) their accomplishments while minimizing the accomplishments, contributions, and value of others.

Narcissistic leaders can be good for organizations, though. They pursue goals aggressively, drive toward innovation, are highly competitive, have a strong vision, are charismatic orators, and make bold decisions.

Charismatic one moment and cutting the next, narcissists can be extremely difficult to work with or work for. How can employees manage the day-to-day whims of a narcissistic manager? Here are five tips to keeping your sanity — and even taking something positive from the experience.

  1. Manage your expectations. If you were hoping to have a closer relationship with the narcissist, let it go. This shift will help fortify you against their challenging behaviors. Remember that every work situation has pros and cons. Instead of wishing for what you don’t have, focus on the positive aspects of your job, co-workers, and work environment.
  2. Frame your messages wisely. Remember that narcissists have difficulty being challenged or criticized. Always consider how whatever idea or suggestion you have will help the narcissistic leader look good or advance his goals. If you really want your idea to be accepted, make the narcissistic leader believe it was his idea all along.
  3. Document carefully. Make sure to clarify in writing who is responsible for what. When things don’t work out as planned, narcissistic leaders will blame others before accepting responsibility. Do your best to keep notes, records, e-mails or other communications that can, if needed, remind others of previous agreements.
  4. Set clear boundaries. Narcissistic leaders want what they want when they want it. If you lead them to expect that you are available 24/7, they will gladly take you up on it. Be crystal clear about when you are not available and make sure coverage is adequate in your absence.
  5. Become a cheerleader. Stop hoping in vain that a narcissistic leader will appreciate you, credit your accomplishments or be supportive of you or others. Rather, develop your own sense of a job well done and take every opportunity to celebrate successes — yours and others.
  6. Find fulfillment and successes outside the workplace. Narcissistic leaders can bring morale down, and repeated exposure to their negative behaviors can harm anyone’s self-esteem. Low self-esteem can, in turn, affect relationships and one’s belief in self-destiny. Find successes outside of work to validate yourself by spending time with family, setting personal goals (and achieving them), volunteering, learning something new, mentoring others, building your network outside the workplace or other activities at which you excel. These can all work to boost self-esteem and help build the confidence to stand your ground if a troublesome work situation occurs.

Narcissistic leaders can be a challenge for anyone, but by developing the skills to cope with them, co-workers will become more resilient and able to operate within a wider range of organizational systems.

David C. Tate is a licensed clinical psychologist and an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at Yale University. Priscilla M. Cale is an author, a lecturer and an adviser with broad experience in the private sector and academia. They co-wrote “Sink or Swim: How Lessons from the Titanic Can Save Your Family Business.”