It’s Narcissist Friday!
When you first meet your new boss, you feel like he/she is the greatest person ever. You feel grateful for the new job, qualified to do the work, and ready to go. You notice that other employees are cool toward you and seem dissatisfied with the company. Some even seem strangely sympathetic toward you. One tells you to be careful not to agree to things like extra work.
So, you mention to the boss that the others seem unhappy. First, he wants to know which ones. Second, he says that this has been a busy time and some people aren’t willing to work hard. Then he says that’s why you were hired, because you had a good attitude and seemed competent. You walk away wondering if there was something you missed in the conversation.
That was your first clue. The second clue came when you saw how everyone worked hard to appear to be working hard whenever the boss was around. When he wasn’t around, they relaxed. You found yourself wanting to please the boss, to volunteer for extra responsibilities, but the others kept quiet. He worked extra hours and expected you to work longer also, but you couldn’t really say what he did. Yet, you wanted to give him respect.
Eventually, you understood. The boss was insatiable. If you had work, he gave you more. If you did well, it was not good enough. If you didn’t do well, he made you feel like an ungrateful loser. He micro-managed everyone with arbitrary rules and changes to projects. He made sure that everyone looked like a loser and understood that they kept their jobs only by his tolerance.
This is only a glimpse of what work under a narcissistic boss might be like. Those who have lived this will usually paint a much darker picture.
Of course, narcissists at work are not always bosses. Sometimes they are just co-workers. They want to be bosses and believe they know better than the bosses. They say nasty things about the bosses behind their backs and try to get you to do the same. But, when the boss is around, they become fawning toadies. In fact, if you did say something negative about the boss or the company, the boss will probably hear about it.
These co-workers steal your work, your clients, and things from your desk. They claim credit for work you did. They boast about their past accomplishments and blame the bosses, the other workers, and you that they are not accomplishing the same wonders now. They talk of their great plans and how they will change things when they get a chance. Of course, all the bosses are against them, and the other workers hold them back. They never seem as competent as they claim to be.
Most of the literature about narcissism focuses on marriage and family. Most people never think of the work environment when they think of narcissistic struggles. But those who have to report every day and work beside or work for a narcissist know that the struggle is not just real, but very difficult. Sometimes there is little that can be done.
But knowledge does bring a certain power. Be careful of what you say to others at work. Document the work you do so you can prove it is yours. Document interactions with the narcissistic boss. There may be a price to pay for going to HR, but when he/she steps across the line you may have to.
There is a helpful book on this subject, the only one I have found. Dr. Nina Brown is one of my favorite writers on narcissism. Her book, Working with the Self-Absorbed, is practical and specific. Filled with examples, she offers ideas on how to handle some of the workplace difficulties.
My only caution is to be careful. Just like dealing with any narcissistic relationship there may be a price to pay for standing up to them or trying to expose them. If you get to the point where you are willing to pay the price, you may be able to change some things at work.