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Jennifer Newman: How to deal with a narcissistic boss

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman discusses with Gloria Macarenko, guest host of CBC’s The Early Edition, the pitfalls of working for narcissistic supervisors who feel hard done by.

Positive workplaces can encourage narcissistic managers to act appropriately, says workplace expert

Narcissistic bosses can be over-confident, nasty and vengeful if their self-esteem is threatened, says Jennifer Newman. (Getty Images/Cultura RF)

Believe it or not, egotistical managers can be a positive force at work.

Their narcissism can make them confident and able to make bold decisions — especially in ambiguous or uncertain situations, according to workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.

But if they believe the organization has treated them unfairly somehow, watch out.

Newman discussed with Gloria Macarenko, guest host of CBC's The Early Edition, the pitfalls of working for narcissistic supervisors who feel hard done by.

Gloria Macarenko: How can workers tell if their boss is a narcissist?

Narcissism refers to the degree to which your boss has an inflated sense of themselves and how invested they are in having this positive self-perception constantly reinforced. These bosses will seek attention and approval continually. They'll find as many opportunities as possible to demonstrate their superiority over others.

And they don't learn from past mistakes. They can be over-confident and nasty and vengeful if their self-esteem is threatened.

What happens to make these types feel unfairly treated?

They expect others to acknowledge their superiority and they demand complete respect. They believe they are owed things like raises, bonuses, public accolades and promotions.

If they get passed up for a special project, for example, they'll feel unfairly treated. This threatens their positive sense of self and leads to problems for their staff.

What kinds of situations do staff find themselves up against?

The supervisor will start to engage in extremely self-interested behaviour. They may use his or her position to gain financially or personally.

For example, I worked with an organization grappling with this kind of manager. He found loopholes in company policy around his expenses and discretionary spending account.

The company was losing thousands of dollars due to his suspicious spending. And he was able to make the case his charges were allowable. He was also too valuable to let go. Staff knew about the questionable spending and couldn't say anything for fear of retaliation.

What other behaviours do workers need to watch for with these kinds of supervisors?

If the manager feels really hard done by, they may start to withdraw. They won't do their job. They'll provide as little help or direction to staff as possible. They'll become impossible to get a hold of.

I met with a boss who had completely retreated. He started disappearing following a disrespectful interaction with some important stakeholders.

He took it out on staff and ignored any work having to do with the stakeholders. He refused to respond to emails from staff about them or attend meetings to discuss them. It was like the stakeholders had ceased to exist for him, but staff bore the brunt.

What are the effects of this kind of acting out on staff?

Workers contend with a lack of direction. They don't have follow-through or assistance from their supervisor. It becomes very hard to get your work done.

They may witness the supervisor doing things against company policy, like engaging in time theft, or using company supplies, tools, or contractors to work on their own projects.

The pressure to stay quiet is enormous and it leads to feelings of frustration, confusion and worry for workers. 

What can workers do in this situation?

It depends. Telling the company what the boss is up to is difficult, especially if decision-makers don't listen. Workers may also face retaliation.

Many bide their time waiting to see if anyone with authority notices their boss's stonewalling or dishonest behaviour. If you aren't getting the direction you need, keep a record of times you ask for help. Note what decisions you are forced to make without much feedback.

And refrain from making big decisions on your own. The boss is trying to create a bottleneck on purpose. Staff could bear the brunt of decisions they make without authorization.

Is there anything organizations can do to deal with this problem?

Yes. The research indicates that narcissistic managers can act appropriately. But it's up to the workplace to encourage environments typified by collaboration, positive feedback, fairness and healthy boundaries.

This kind of environment tends to activate more socially appropriate behaviour. Egotistical supervisors will try to enhance their positive view of themselves by pleasing others, demonstrating moral behaviour and doing things that win admiration.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the entire conversation below.