Leadership

Is your boss a narcissist?

A new study arrives at the obvious conclusion that narcissists are likely to step in as leaders. Here's why they do, and why they're so hard to deal with.

A new study arrives at the obvious conclusion that narcissists are likely to step in as leaders. Here's why they do, and why they're so hard to deal with.

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I hate to appear jaded here, but when I heard about two new studies that indicate narcissists like to be leaders, my first reaction was, "Uh, yeah, so what's your point?" The "groundbreaking" conclusion of the research is that overconfident people are most likely to step in as leaders, whether that's in the form of politicians or power brokers. Again, what's your point?

Maybe I'm being too flip with the findings of these recent studies (which will be detailed in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin), but did we really need a study to come up with this conclusion? It stands to reason that if you think you're the greatest thing since sliced bread, you wouldn't be satisfied with last-man-on-the-totem pole status.

The problem with this tendency is that narcissistic people often have an inflated and erroneous vision of themselves, so they strive to be in positions where they really aren't effective. In fact, if a person's sole goal is to expose others to his personal grandeur, then that person will make a terrible boss.

I've met a couple of narcissistic bosses in my day. I worked with one from his hire date until he became a unit manager. All of his work before that point had felt like an exercise in busy work, like he was just biding his time until he could be in the place where he "belonged." And that was in front of a captive audience (his team) who had to listen to him opine on end about any number of issues he actually knew very little about. He was the only manager in the company who referred to his team members as "subordinates." (I know that term is acceptable in the military, but I find its Random House definition -- "of less importance" -- to be insulting and elitist.)

The frustrating thing about a narcissist is that you can't penetrate his exterior with any kind of constructive criticism. And that makes for a terrible boss and a terrible employee. So please share -- have you had any experience with a narcissist?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

41 comments
melekali
melekali

It is in a military context, and she just wanted to make the next rank. She was clueless in her chosen career and even worse in mine. She would say, "I'm trusting you in this," as if to imply I may or may not be doing my job, but I think she was so unsure she didn't call me on it (yes, I was fully prepared and did my work just like any good IT person would). I had one boss in this context who could not comprehend in the smallest amount what my job was so she officially censured me for not doing what she made up as being my job, despite the fact that I was fully doing what she was not able to comprehend. Wild. I simply outlasted her and she retired and now I don't have to deal with that idiot.

tphan04325
tphan04325

I once worked for a CEO who is very qualified as a narcissist. His typical conversation with all of his employees is "I don't care to hear the issue, I just want it done and done in 2 hours. You haven't f#$% doing your job." As a result, the turn-over rate is about 50 people a year. The sad part is there are only about 25 people in the company in any given time. The point is most narcissists are leaders but they are lousy leaders!

gurudev_sajwan
gurudev_sajwan

Hi, This was very interesting topic to read because it remind me my old days. I had one boss extremely narcissist. I had worked with him for three years and almost work 18 hours a days for one year but never listen appriciation, even listen that, when can I improve myself as him. As you mentioned that narcissist can become a leader, yes they can become a leader but not a big boss. Here in my case this guys my previous boss is a leader of a unit but no one like him including his boss to promote to a manager position because his boss is also a narcissist :).

patclem
patclem

The "Invisible Hand" always comes along and fixes that kind of situation if you wait long enough. It always does...

metmet
metmet

I work with someone who is a narcissist? I don't think he knows or understands that he is and what is worse many other co-workers seem to sweep it under the rug or make excuses for him . That may be, because the others outrank him and I don't . However my experience with him is that he will openly criticize me in front of management based on his opinion without regard to what I think or other factors . It is still ongoing , but recently he decided to delegate something for me to do that he should have done and I exposed him to upper management . He acted like a wounded dog and had 1000 excuses ,like I initiate this , I implement that , I would never let the other thing happen , this guy can never be wrong . I hope this guy could be fixed with a steady women , however I think he would just drive her off .

Zim7
Zim7

Luckily, I have some pretty good bosses here where I work.

honeysweet30
honeysweet30

The government is full of them! They appear to be mostly middle management. They don't have to know anything, but who butt to kiss to make themselves look good.

don.saracco
don.saracco

The entire situation is also complicated by the fact that most organization designs encourage narcissism and feed the addiction to control that is characteristic of such folk. Like it or not if your organization has levels and titles that imply superiority, then there will be those that are subordinate or less important. Only application of breakthrough changes in organization design will achieve the goal of keeping you from being insulted by a fixed fact of hierarchy.

tardius
tardius

I worked for a boss who wore his disdain for his employees and his clients on his sleeve and still got paid big. He would tell us how he could replace the whole team in a day (this was right after the .com bust), walk in and out of the office at all hours, disappear for days on end, even conduct business for other "companies" in our client's office. He had a key catch phrase before everything he said, "Look". As if he was about to lay down the serious learning right then and there. To top it all off, he would flaunt his 3rd wife and all of the expensive items his lucrative contacts would afford him constantly... Porsche, multiple houses, ugly but expensive clothes. Even $1500 rose tinted frameless glasses. The furious rage I put him that led to my firing was worth it. Man, that felt good...

mgodin
mgodin

Use to work with a person who fit this description to a tee and desperately wanted to be a boss. He would spend all his time on items to self promote. When he would find there was a need for some specific knowledge, he would buy a book, learn all the lingo and then pass off like he had years of experience in the subject. Asked to do some simple support work, he had no clue. The rest of us had to pick up all the pieces while he paraded like the work was too far beneath him. As a coworker, they alienate themselves, as a boss, they will eventually lose their competent staff until someone higher up has spent enough time with them to realize they are 80% BS.

LucasISG
LucasISG

My boss is an individual that demonstrates most of the signs of a committed narcissist. However, he is working to overcome this affliction. He is consulting with an executive coach, has attend multiple seminars and working sessions, completed leadership assessment courses, and the ROI on this effort is minimal. His narcissistic nature is so close to the surface that the least provocation brings it to full bloom. I believe he genuinely wants to improve, but he struggles constantly. Is there an example of anyone overcoming this and making the transition to benevolent dictator?

No User
No User

I'm not sure how to describe the CEO but he takes a little bit from each department and has it under his direct control. He has to be in on everything that could be viewed as important and not just that but he takes charge with out having either the back ground and experience to do so. This often produces nightmare situations that can take years to over come and typically only do to replacement and not a fix. The man mangles nearly everything. He MUST be seen as the person in charge of everything that could be viewed as valuable. He can't handle anyone else being viewed as a person in a power position. All power MUST be emanating from him alone. You walk right into harms way if you try to prevent him from barging in on a project and taking it over. He MUST be BIG DADDY and the ONLY BIG DADDY. He surrounds himself with YES women who present the least challenge to his dominance. He is my direct supervisor and nobody else is higher then me on the organization chart. I was hired as a department manager and still am but a part time person hired today for the lowest level position is on equal status as me. They are an employee and so am I and my Department Manger status for 14 years means absolutely nothing it's just a title only BIG DADDY's title carries any weight. All decisions MUST be seen as coming from him. God forbid anyone else would be even viewed as having power and or authority. This is where surrounding himself with women comes in handy. They question everything they are ask to do in an effort to both avoid doing it and to refute someone's else's authority to give them a task. They run straight to BIG DADDY to see if he thinks they should do it. This makes cross departmental co-operation few and far between and lays a perfect foundation for politics. Needless to say his STYLE shall we say has produced enormous headaches that could easily have been prevented. Every supervisor is in a situation of having one arm tied behind their back and nearly every non-department supervisor is inept at best. There is not much supervising going on at the front line and the result is back office must compensate the hard way to make up for it. We are always working from behind. The man MUST have everything his way JUST like a little kid and when I argue with him over his blatant acts of stupidity I have to treat him just like a little spoiled brat. He refuses to talk about things and then his refusal becomes the focal point and not the issue that he refuses to talk about which of course is the point and purpose of the discussion. When he wont talk about something it becomes an issue of going against his decision "not to talk about it". Every department manager is asked by our vendors why the CEO is in charge of something and not the manager and of course he always takes something out of where it belongs and puts in an awkward position with somebody else just so you don't have complete control over departmental functions even although that just makes it more difficult for everybody. I have never seen nor heard anything like it in my life. How would you describe his "THE CEO" personality based on my description?

JamesRL
JamesRL

My last few bosses have been anything but narcissists. My current boss is self deprecating, and doesn't mind us making jokes at his expense, and even encourages it. His boss is similar, I made a joke about his baldness at a management meeting a while back, and he laughed first. Twenty years ago though, I worked with a bunch of narcissists. The company founder had a well known ego, rolled a number of Corvettes, dumped his first wife for a trophy wife, had the hubris to try and take on Microsoft, and inevitably lost. Some of you may know of him.... My boss at that company, where I worked as a sales person, was from the insurance industry, and spent more time chosing shoes than coaching her staff. She didn't know much about technology and didn't care to learn. Her main criticism of me was that I was too technical, which may have been somewhat valid, but I think the ideal was certainly somewhere between her style and mine. One of my jobs before that I worked with an ultimate narcisst, who had salepeople cringing when he yelled at customers, insulting their intelligence. He also yelled at staff in the open office area. It was funny that he wasn't the technical guru who created the exciting tech we were selling, just the smart guy who saw the need, and got the wizard to productize an interesting theory. The VP who created the technology was as nice a guy as you would want to meet. But without the drive and energy of the narcissist, his ideas would never have made either of them rich. I would think my staff know I'm not a narcissist. I try to set an example by admitting my faults and weaknesses, and working on them, instead of denying them. James

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

She was miserable to work with. My, and my coworkers, thoughts regarding our program needs went in one ear and out the other, she often approved (vocally, to us) a policy which we then instituted, only to negate that policy after we instituted it, made promises she couldn't keep, and was a real control freak. I got away from her ASAP. My current boss is great. My previous boss no longer has her old position, due to restructuring of that department. etu

uFunctional
uFunctional

...who's undermining morale and sapping the productivity of his/her direct reports, there's a senior manager who promoted him/her. Little organizations die quickly this way. Bigger ones, like bigger trees, take longer (all too long) to rot, die, and fall over.

ganesh_arul
ganesh_arul

Such a useless post..have never read like this one before

dcolbert
dcolbert

I recently read that Narcisssits are more likely to maintain Facebook and MySpace pages, and are far more likely to post to their "wall" and to have professional quality profile pictures. I bet if we dig deeper, we'll find that narcissists are more likely to gravitate toward careers in media and journalism - probably more likely to gravitate toward writing opinion pieces, like the one Toni writes above, and more likely to post to online forums habitually, as I am doing right now. "I'm not a narcissist, narcissists SUCK, and if you give me 5 minutes of your captive and absolute attention, I'll enlighten you to my superior observations of why this is so... You can thank me later" Pot... kettle, black?!?

swheeler
swheeler

I felt a touch of resonance when I read, "All of his work before that point had felt like an exercise in busy work, like he was just biding his time until he could be in the place where he 'belonged.'" This describes most of my working existence. I am a narcissist, according to a personality test I helped baseline for a therapist. The traits it revealed were all true though when coupled with poor self-esteem make an interesting combination. Putting yourself above reproach by attaining leadership status is a good way to hide inadequacies. However, it doesn't make up for poor social and teamwork skills. I may tend to believe I'm smarter than everyone else. I also know there are volumes of knowledge to be had from interacting with and valuing others. This can't be taught to a narcissist though constructive criticism. Only my life experiences serve to humble me. The best advice I can give is to know your boss' weakness and play to it for the benefit of all.

prosenjit11
prosenjit11

Indeed sometimes it is purely on the ego factor and where basic instinct over-rules education and logical thinking. WHAT FOR? ONLY FOR POWER, POSITION AND MONEY. SUCK THE WEAKER AND GET STRONGER LIKE THE COMMUNIST RULE.

JamesRL
JamesRL

In my world, and I've worked a few different kinds of companies, I don't feel "superior" to my staff, but I do have more onerous responsibilities. Likewise my boss has more responsibilities than me. I don't think people should feel insulted by the fact that some people are above them on the org chart - if that were the case, everyone would feel insulted but the CEO. I do have more experience than most of my staff. More is expected of me. Quite honestly I have personal circumstances that mean I can't do the 60-70 hours a week that most senior execs do to earn their pay. So I am fairly content. I do have staff who I know one day, with the right experience and coaching, will be able to do my job, maybe even better than I can. It is absolutely true that some people are more important than others in the organization, but that isn't only based on their "rank" or "title" its also based on their experience, skills, and the needs of the company. At one employer, I had been a line manager with 3 supervisors and about 21 staff, then I moved into a planning role where I had an assistant and thats all. The planning role paid better and was more interesting. But when the .com bubble burst, and cuts had to be made, I quickly assessed that I was the least needed among my peers, and sure enough I was laid off. Frankly we came to the same conclusion. Participating in a hierarchical organization does not imply narcissism. James

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

There is about the most negative definition of rose colored glasses I have ever seen. Guess I'll have to think twice about replacing my broken pair.

yellfire
yellfire

I worked for that guy for the past 3 years and was ready to quit when the invisible hand came and fixed the situation. My co-workers and I are working all weekend on the grunt work that he still refuses to touch. Nice to think that his BS will be revealed eventually.

john
john

I'd say that "petulant child" is about right. This guy is diseased. Years ago, I went to work for a very successful software company, the owner/founder of which was a screamer. I asked my therapist at the time "What do I do to deal with this?" He said "Yelling at people is not a personality trait, it is a character ~defect~." He went on to say that screamers want to know that they're the top dog, so you kinda duck your head and kowtow first, and then work your way around to the idea of what you want. It worked for a couple years, but the BS level got to be too much and I quit. Pity; in some ways, it was the best job I ever had. The mgmt continued its same level of dysfunction because they knew nothing else and within about 3 years after I quit, they'd turned a $100M company into a $5M company (daring the SEC and the stockholders to not do anything when they made false statements seemed, oh, incautious) and they folded their tent entirely not long after that. I fear that there's nothing much you can do about this guy. As appealing as it may appear, there's just not a lot of upside to setting up some vast machination to make him look like a boob in a meaningful, career-inhibiting way. Moreover, it just sounds like he's a jerk and not doing anything illegal, which makes it unlikely there's outside help to be found. It might possibly be worth while to find out who his noble protector is: even CEOs have to answer to shareholders and investors and Board of Directors. There may be nothing that can be done, but it's barely possible that he's got his bosses snowed on what he's actually like, in which case there might be some respite. FWIW, I'm very happy with my own current boss: I recruited her myself and she's mighty good. I'm learning a good deal from her and I have a lot of faith that she can do a lot of cool things for our department. But I've had some real Richard Craniums in my day, too, usually supported by clueless upper managers who suffer from Optical Mouse Syndrome (no balls and kinda dim) who won't ever take any action because that'd require them to Do Something Difficult. There's little that can be done in a case like that except move on, no matter how unfair it may seem.

AllyRose
AllyRose

You just described, to a tee, the now-former CEO of the company I used to work for! He was a tyrant! He would actually throw things at you if you in any way gave him the slightest idea you didn't agree with him. Sad thing was, this was a public membership organization which was funded mainly by taxpayer dollars. He'd put on the nice act in front of who he deemed important people in the community, but as soon as their back was turned it was a rage again. Finally, after 5 years, the board of directors caught on to him (not to mention the fact that he missappropriated public money) and gave him his just desserts!

kjack
kjack

I don't normally post anything, but my boss is a narcissist, and you wouldn't believe the problems it causes. I work for a software company, and my boss has no problem with angering our customers. As he puts it "I have a reputation for being blunt". That's true if "being blunt" = "being a jerk". He makes arbitrary decisions with negative affects, and just expects everybody to like it. When his ill-thought decisions cause problems, he cannot be reasoned with. Ever. He solicits no advice before making decisions, and will accept no "back talk" after the fact. He has messed with employee careers by assigning tasks that they cannot or will not handle, and told them to find another job if they don't like it. Three key employees have quit so far, and he is working on driving out a fourth. Our division is hanging on by a thread, and a lot of our customers are complaining. I'm just going to stay put, hang on as best I can, and hope that all this will eventually blow up in his face.

lexys
lexys

I could think of a few ways to describe him, "wanker" comes to mind, as does "petulant child". This guy really does sound like the worst kind of boss to have and I can see that it is really stressful for you. I believe that there are ways to deal with this DH but treating them like a child isn't one of them. Whenever I come up against a really difficult person in the workplace I get professional advice on how best to deal with them. I have been surprised with the outcomes I get when I put that advice into practise. But hey sometimes just b***ing about them to everyone makes me feel better! :-P

yellfire
yellfire

I once worked for a company whose CEO had a bust of himself in his office, ended all his meetings with the slogan "Drive Fast and Take Chances" and once, in need of a pencil, he entered the floor of a building with nearly a hundred cubicles proclaiming "my kingdom for a pencil!"

lexys
lexys

OMG you just described one of my ex-bosses to a T! She had a miserable personality, negative attitude towards everything except her own work, spent 50% of the time carrying on about how great she is/ how fast she can do the work (only on the same products she had been doing for the last 18 yrs), and spent the other 50% of the time moaning about her personal problems, answering txt msgs, emails, phone calls etc. God forbid if you had to bring anything to her attention (particularly if it was something she had done wrong) I have never seen anyone argue /pass blame so much. God forbid if anyone else on the team had a personal crisis to deal with, she would be completely unsympathetic and a downright B*tch to their face. Then she would be surprised when no-one would invite her to anything outside of work. She even started threatening suicide one day after finding out she was the only person who didn't get invited to my birthday party, sounds childish I know, but everyone else said they wouldn't turn up if she came and I valued everyone else's company over hers. By the end of the first year of her working at this company, all of us on the team either quit or moved into other positions. It just became her in her own little team working all by her lonely self, having to do 5 people's work all by her lonely self. Weird that the boss didn't try to employ more people to help cover the work. I'm no longer there but from what I hear, she's managed to surround herself with some Yes people that used to work for her a long time ago. So that's great, they can all be losers together while the rest of us can get on with working professionally in better jobs.

CDS
CDS

So how do you deal with a narcissistic boss? Do you stroke their ego to get what you want?

maurimev
maurimev

(You have to be so exhibicionist? rude)

networkguyinsavannah
networkguyinsavannah

My worst boss was a guy who knew NOTHING about broadcast engineering or IT. Oh, he knew all the buzz words and could talk the stripes off a zebra but every time he touched a piece of equipment; it was a casuality in progress. Turns out he also was into wife swapping and pushed his title of "regional Chief Engineer" around every time he felt people did not give him the "respect" he felt was due. After I left, I heard he messed up so much trying to handle the workload I managed. So much for his words "I can do your job easily"

uFunctional
uFunctional

...then you're way ahead of most narcissists, and are on the path to wisdom. The hard-core narcissist isn't even humbled by life experience. The pain s/he feels is always someone else's fault. Like General Patton said, "Heck, I'm a prima donna, I admit it. The trouble with Montgomery is he won't admit it."

No User
No User

Very artfully done. "Richard Craniums, Optical Mouse Syndrome" These are classics. I never heard them before and they gave me a good howl thanks a bunch. I'm going to use them. Well we are in the final stretch of a core system conversion and my review is immediately after we go live on the new system I already have feelers out and as they say spring brings a change in the air. The bottom line is my situation MUST change but in this economy It may be prudent to wait. We are a cooperative and he is chummy with the board chair. He is going to retire in about 6 - 7 years. I would love to have his job I know I could do better then him that is why he is such a "Richard Cranium" towards me. Every time I turn around I run into one of his follies and if I can I slyly correct it and in general just going about my work I show him up routinely. The other folks see this and once in while behind closed doors they let out a peep or two about it but being women they have a design flaw it's called "Optical Mouse Syndrome no balls" ;) and that is why he is still here and believe me he knows it. Just as you stated "in some ways, it was the best job I ever had" in many ways it's the best job that I have ever had and I often lose myself in my work and that keeps me there that and the occasional wink and pat on the shoulder from the ladies with "Optical Mouse Syndrome" but after 14 years my emotional pot is full. I think the only reason he hasn't fired me for standing up to him so often is that he strongly senses that I have absolutely no fear of him. Self preservation in the face of something that is blatantly incorrect unfortunately is not one of my virtues but it seems to work for me in spite of that.

No User
No User

I would love to talk to someone who could coach me on how to deal with it. As far as Bit**ing it makes me feel better at first but eventually it wares me down. It's addictive as well once you start you don't want to stop and you both alienate others and also make yourself sick over it. Sometimes I really amaze myself that I don't climb that Texas tower and go Postal.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

a narcissist, she was a 'master manipulator'. Gods, the bullsh*t she attempted to play on her program heads, and lesser employees. Far too often successfully. I lucked out. I grew up under the tutelage of a master manipulator. The woman was blatant. Meaning of course that too many people are naive, or stupid. Unfortunate. How different the world could be. nudderetu

chreez
chreez

Essentially, I've found that dealing with narcissistic bosses, you have to outperform their expectations, then show them that you can "tow their line". I've personally found that narcissistic people take the work you do for granted, don't congratulate you for exceptional work and expect the world and when you deliver the world, they think it's a normal day.

dcolbert
dcolbert

That people with a variety of personality flaws are less likely to be strongly empathetic and often do not understand why their behavior (which they often see as simply honest) is perceived as rude. Although the narcissists wouldn't care, even if they understood.

amesius
amesius

Especially not for outstanding work. If they were to do so, they couldn't steal the credit for your work later. It also makes it much easier for them to use you as a scapegoat for their errors if they haven't given you the accolades you deserve.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

I hadn't noticed you knocking at my door with a delivery of the world.

dtrnelson
dtrnelson

people who: - think everything they do is "exceptional" - sulk when they are not congratulated for their exceoptional work, but - continue to deliver the world even though their long experience tells them "nothing's going to change" What's the name for people like me, I mean, like that?

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