Narcissistic leaders have a negative impact on the culture of their organization as their conduct and management style induces fear.
You deliver more than anyone on the team, but it’s your well-connected colleague who wins over your difficult boss and gets the promotion. You work hard and are the brains behind a successful new innovation, but you find out your boss has taken credit for your work and feel defeated.
You try to be a team player, but a colleague is always cozying up to the boss and sucking up all the oxygen in the room. You think that if you do better work it will be acknowledged, but it turns out that feeding your boss’s ego means more than any of your accomplishments. If any of this sounds familiar, you may be working for a narcissistic boss.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-V (DSM-V), a person with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) displays long-term signs of a grandiose sense of importance, a lack of empathy toward others, and a constant need to be admired and unique. When it comes to identifying someone with narcissism, the clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula defines the core of the disease as grandiosity, a lack of empathy, a chronic sense of entitlement, and a chronic need for admiration and validation from other people.
A boss with NPD can mean a lot of emotional and mental strain for their direct reports: research shows they often end up leaving the organization, getting fired, or developing a mental illness.
Narcissistic leaders are generally talented, goal-oriented, and charismatic. Coupled with charm and confidence, these qualities mean they generally win over the hiring manager during the interview process.
Although interviewers want to believe this charismatic figure will be a good leader, it’s just a façade. Once hired, they lack empathy, compassion, and—often—insight, while refusing to self-reflect or listen to feedback.
Narcissistic bosses’ relationships are transactional, with no empathy or regard for employees’ well-being. Meeting financial metrics and shifting the spotlight onto themselves is the be-all and end-all for leaders like these, essentially leaving their team out in the cold without opportunities for professional growth.
Narcissistic leaders are often unhappy as a result of their fragile self-esteem and inability to maintain long-term relationships. This is why they exploit the vulnerability of their employees and surround themselves with enablers and sycophants who never stand up to the narcissist or object to anything they may demand.
Employees like this hang around the toxic leader, take the blame when things go wrong, and allow the boss to take the credit when things go right. Narcissistic leaders are also attention seekers who are in constant need of validation from those who benefit from them and want to be like them.
Narcissistic leaders have a negative impact on the culture of their organization as their conduct and management style induces fear. They often thrive in times of economic and cultural insecurity by creating new and punitive company policies that give them more authority and control over others.
Of course, this impacts directly on the psychological safety of staff. They may even sow turmoil intentionally, harming the work environment with unnecessary layoffs and/or shifts in leadership and management.
In weak employment markets with limited career opportunities, employees find themselves forced to support toxic leaders to keep their jobs. Then, it is simply a matter of time before the company culture shifts and begins to embody the toxic traits of its leadership.
Everyone experiences the narcissistic leader as arrogant, intimidating, and a person who is keen to make others feel incompetent or inadequate, so they get all the glory in the company. Their communication is often categorized by humiliation, insults, and they demonstrate a dysregulated emotional response to frustration or competition.
In her book The Allure of Toxic Leaders, Jean Lipman-Bumen explains these toxic leaders lack integrity and lie to fortify their grandiose visions for the company. They have unrealistic goals that are much bigger than any other individual in the company.
They foster a culture that rewards corruption and backstabbing in which employees, just like children, will do anything to win the love of an emotionally unavailable and self-absorbed parent. And because of their power, sense of entitlement, and lack of empathy, they think everyone in the company wants to please them. Their misperception almost becomes a problem with reality testing.
They assume everyone in the company is on board with their skewed truth. Luckily, narcissistic leaders often do not last in their role for more than a few years because the organizational cost of keeping them is too high and damaging to the staff.
One might wonder if narcissistic leaders are so toxic, why are they tolerated? There can be many possible answers. In some cases, the narcissist relies on a prestigious degree, the well-known school from which they graduated, a big-name institution where they were previously employed, their family name, or an impressive title to protect them.
People often have a hard time associating wrongdoing with those who carry big names, prestigious degrees, and titles, which leaves the victims in shadow. Narcissistic leaders often deliver results, at least in the short-term, so the company may overlook their abuse as validation that sometimes you have to be difficult to obtain hard-to-get results.
These toxic leaders also overcompensate their immediate employees to ensure their loyalty. As Dr. Ramani Darvasula says, “no one wants to kill the golden goose, when he or she is rageful, arrogant, toxic, and cruel. It becomes a Faustian bargain and may diminish the likelihood of people seeking out recourse against a toxic boss if the financial and material benefits are so enticing.”
Time and time again, research shows that many narcissistic qualities are found in people with leadership roles. Individuals with NPD are often drawn to leadership, which raises the questions of which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Are charm, charisma, and confidence chosen for leadership, or does being a leader result in a greater sense of entitlement? In the real world, those who get power are the same people who seek power. And those who seek power are more likely to possess the patterns associated with narcissism.
There are strategies employees can use to handle working for a narcissistic boss. For example, in her book, Don’t You Know Who I Am? Darvasula recommends the following:
1. Do not meet with a narcissistic boss alone. A narcissistic boss often prefers a phone conversation or meeting alone. Ask someone to join your meeting. If that is not possible, send a written memo highlighting the key points discussed in your meeting.
2. Document, document, document. Take detailed notes and save all your correspondence, including text, emails, voice mails, etc. The human resources department cannot assist without documentation.
3. Do not engage with them. When attempting to engage and argue with them, they project, gaslight, and lie, tempting the employee to fall into the trap of getting angry and defending themselves, perhaps making themselves look worse in the process. Stay calm, give short answers, stick to facts, and let them dig their own grave through their tantrums.
4. Find an ally. Seek out colleagues who are going through the same things as you are to be your allies. Allies can help you cope better and sometimes a group of you can support each other.
5. Do not get manipulated by superficial tricks. Narcissistic leaders buy loyalty with perks and better compensation. Is it better to work in a place with fewer perks but where you are valued or a place with all the prestige but abused mentally every day?
6. Be your best advocate. By being your advocate, it means letting the narcissistic leader know about your important contributions to the company. This could be hard for those who are humble by nature.
7. Actions speak louder than words. Narcissistic bosses can be charming and shower you with complements. Judge them by their action and not their words.
8. Craft an escape plan. Begin to explore other career opportunities. Focus on building your portfolio and find allies who are willing to vouch for you.
9. Do not take it personally. Remember the narcissistic leader is insecure and their criticism of you is rooted in this insecurity, not in your actions.
10. Manage your expectations. Narcissistic bosses are not interested in your growth or providing you constructive feedback. Many employees believe their years of devotion will be rewarded. Chances are you will be forgotten once the narcissistic boss moves on to greener pastures. Be prepared and manage your expectations.
11. Take care of your health. Work stress can take a toll on your health and your family’s health. Until you figure your situation out, it is best to seek counseling or find a support group to share your challenges openly. Exercise, meditation, and hobbies are good short-term solutions.
12. Maintain your integrity and stand up for yourself. Silence gives the narcissistic boss validation and power. Stand up for what you believe in. Stick to your values, even when you are mocked or minimized for what you believe in.
Perhaps a second #MeToo movement is needed to expand the understanding of what impact a toxic, narcissistic boss can have on the workforce and the well-being of employees. Toxic leaders will not go away until we understand narcissism, explore the reasons we fall for their behaviors, and learn how to stop rewarding their toxic behavior—whether they are elected, appointed, or hired. If not, this bad behavior and incivility will only continue to grow.
About the Author
Helen Sairany holds extensive knowledge, skills, and experiences in executive leadership, administrative management, regulatory, practice, and accreditation systems gained through her 12 years of work as a trauma informed pharmacist, State Executive and CEO for the South Carolina Pharmacy Association (SCPhA), Director of Content Development and Partnership at the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), Director of Quality Assurance at the University of Duhok College of Pharmacy, and as a field provider for Doctors Without Borders in Iraq and Western Syria.
Dr. Sairany holds a Bachelor of Art from Agnes Scott College, an MBA from the University of Maryland, and a PharmD from Northeastern University.
She was recognized by the Washington Business Journal “40 Under 40” for her work on combating opioid abuse nationwide through pharmacist patient care services and trauma informed care.
She has keynoted nationally on a wide range of topics including but not limited to mental health fitness and wellbeing, racial and developmental trauma, addiction, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. She is a proud author of two books; “Trading Grenades for Candy: A Kurdish Refugee's American Journey” and “Post Traumatic Wisdom: Finding Belonging in Wake of Racial Trauma.” Her love for writing started when she blogged about her experiences living as a single woman in a male-dominated field in the Middle East. In her free time, she served as a faculty adviser for the All-Women Blogger’s Club, where she teaches young women from the minority communities how to voice their opinions through writing. She also serves as a mentor for countless number of students, residents, and fellows across the country.