How to Handle a Narcisstic Boss

I’ve been reading an interesting article about “How to Handle a Narcissistic Boss” by a writer called Susan Price.

Narcissistic bosses, or difficult, domineering, bullying ones, have always been a source of difficulty and conflict for me as a manager with Asperger Syndrome (AS). A key reason is because, as I view things objectively, their behaviour is objectively unreasonable; I don’t into account that the behaviour is driven by subjective requirements, i.e. power, egotism or oppression.

So, how can one deal with it?

To do so, I believe, you have to understand the underlying [behavioural] drivers. Price starts with an outline of the character traits that a narcissistic boss exudes: blames everyone else for everything, expects answers in two minutes, contradicts himself and sometimes even argues with the facts. As she goes on to say, a true narcissist can make your like a misery. To this I would add: for someone with Asperger and, hence, less enhanced social skills, they can be hell!

I have written about “difficult” bosses before on and, I suppose, a narcissistic manager is a version of this. At the heart of the character of a domineering, bullying manager is one, I have found, who needs to be liked.

So the above article specifically caught my attention and provided me with some further insight and advice on how to deal with this difficult issue. It outlies 8 ways/techniques for dealing with a narcissist and starts by making a very important, initial point: the ways you might handle problems with other difficult people might not work with a narcissist – they might even make things worse.

“No ego can match, never mind annihilate, the ego of a narcissist” according to Margaret Heffernan in Wilful Blindness. “What you have decide is whether their achievement will facilitate your success. If it will, that’s fine. If these two are odds, get out now”.

In addition to the first point I would add: if their achievement will ensure your corporate survival. Allied to this is: can I put up with, tolerate and cope with their behaviour?

As I have referred to often before there is a chapter in my book “Managing with Asperger Syndrome ( entitled “If You Meet that Person”. Fundamentally it is about a personality type that someone with Asperger I believe is simply unable to get on and interact with.

In my case the person in questions – Tom – was a bully, but there was also a strong sense of narcissism about him. Looking back the only way to have been able to have possibly survived was by pandering to him and stroking his ego.

The innate sense of right and wrong and high moral perception of someone with AS makes this virtually impossible in my view, but the aim of AspergerManagement has always been to provide advice, support and guidance for people with AS who find themselves in difficult and problematic situations. After all, there are times when your job and income are on the line.

To get back to the 8 techniques that Price outlies…

1. Forget Being Friends

People with AS want to be liked: not being so is uncomfortable and reinforces a sense of being “different” or less than adequate. In the workplace, I have found, means that this is unrealistic: you are simply going to have to get along with people you dislike or don’t approve of. For many people also, the job is a source of income and livelihood and not a place for fraternising or building friendships.

The individual [Tom] I encountered was a “businessman”. There was no sentimentality. It didn’t cut the same way with him though: everyone had to pander to him, pay homage and, ultimately, do his unpalatable work for him. If you didn’t, the consequences were personally serious. I was sacked unjustifiably; a colleague was humiliated when he stood up to him.

As Price said, he totally lacked empathy (he was not though an Aspergian!!) and so was incapable of true friendships. As she goes on to say, “you might feel betrayed if you think you are becoming friends only to find out they act without your interests in mind.

One of my closest colleagues at the firm in question made a conscious effort to get along with him and was doing so well until……..the narcissist tried to dump something unpalatable onto him which he refused to do. The former then got nasty….. he was humiliated.

Now, no matter how close I am to a colleague, or however well I feel I am getting on with him/her I refuse to accept that they are a friend. My Asperger does not dictate that they must like me if I am being fair to them.

The old adage: “keep your friends close and your enemies closer still is invaluable and prescient advice.

2. Don’t Criticise

You can’t do this; they simply won’t allow it and cannot take it. The key reason is because they have to be right and have their own way.

For someone with Asperger I find this at times very difficult. There are certain ways of behaving; things that are clearly wrong. The problem is that, in the workplace, I have found to my cost that this rule does not apply.

Narcissists won’t try to change either; instead they will become – as Price says – angry. Worse still they may spark into rage.

With the extreme example I cite, the person involved would simply fly off the handle. You literally could not talk to him and you would become, as the article states, “be on the other side of the tantrum”.

The only effective tactics that I have learnt are:

a) to stay out of it. Mentally condition yourself to be indifferent to the outbursts and, above all, not to react to them or try to fight it.

b) If the individual is in the extreme – as per my example above – then the best course of action as I state in the chapter of my book, is to extricate yourself from the situation as soon as possible. In such extreme examples, someone with AS is simply unlikely to have the social skills to effectively cope – and the hassle and aggravation are not worth it.

3. Focus on Analyzing Problems

The text starts here by stating: “remember, that how you feel isn’t of much interest to your boss”. That is correct. It may even be in my view an understatement: it may be of no interest at all!

You can try as Price says to express your feelings, because the person involved may not be aware of them. From my experience this is definitely worth trying. Some people, I have found, simply are unaware of what they are doing; or, at least, the effect it is having.

The other benefit from the perspective of having Asperger is that it ensures that any approach is constructive in outlook and not emotively charged. The latter mitigates’ against the likelihood of it being negative or regarded as “personal”.

The key factor here from the Asperger perspective in my experience is: think empathy. The key is to try and place oneself into the shoes of the other person and analyze what they are thinking. The problem is that, with a narcissist, the underlying problem may not be work-related per se and revolves more around ego. If so, and if you want to survive, you have to put up with and accept it.

Price argues that one needs to identify concrete ways to handle the problem by giving them solutions. In my experience this means being reverential to their ego. This is not easy for someone with AS; hence the need to change the mindset as mentioned previously. You also need to try and do/deliver things that contribute towards their success, however galling that may be.

If you want to stay in your current position this means “acting”: hiding any dislike (showing it is fatal) and being reverential whilst mildly assertive. “I hear what you say Tom; but I think this would be beneficial”.

Be warned though: even that may not suffice!

4. Let Him Make Decisions

Tom simply had to have his way or, as a colleague said, “so long as it was what he wanted!”

Narcissists feel that they know best. In the case of Tom his business understanding was basic and he had no appreciation of the dynamics of the market he had come into; nor was he capable of developing any. When he did eventually get out to meet a customer, the feedback was “you still haven’t convinced me why I should continue to buy your product!”

The above scenario is another reason why I think, for someone with AS, it is best to extricate from the situation. Ultimately I have found that with such a [narcissistic] personality, it all ends in conflict or failure.

Price makes some suggestions which, in un-extreme cases, are constructive: as they need control, let them make the decisions and don’t try to change them. Present any ideas in ways that appear to let them feel that the decision is theirs. Usually this means giving them options. “I feel that this would be good, but it is, of course, down to you”.

5. Make Him Look and Feel Good

Having AS makes this, for me, the hardest thing of all: Tom was the hero who had come in to save the company.

And actually he had! The company was in financial crisis and by cutting the costs decisively he stopped the company going under. The problem was that, having no understanding of the dynamics of the business/market he was unable to answer the deeper question of how to produce an attractive “product” going forward. As the incoming Managing Director said: “he didn’t think about the future”.

The reality, of course, is that he couldn’t and if anyone challenged or questioned him, he’d remove that challenge: by either sacking as he did me, or by humiliating as he did my colleague.

Everything is about them, so if your actions make them feel good, they will be more tolerable of you. Narcissists want praise and acknowledgement, so be prepared to give it to them (if you can).

Key question for someone with Asperger syndrome: can you do this?

6. Absorb the Blame

Narcissist’s don’t take responsibility for anything. Tom would accuse people of slacking and sack anyone at the drop of a hat if they faltered, but he couldn’t take responsibility himself. It was when he tried to dump his unpalatable stuff onto my colleague – who until then had been reverential towards him and was getting on with him – that he humiliated him.

As Price states, Tom created a bad culture which creating friction throughout the company. This, in turn, made people react.

The danger sign here for someone with Asperger is that they are made the scapegoat being less innately pre-disposed or able to defend themselves’ against unfair criticism or bullying. Don’t react….but be assertive in the face of unreasonable demands by being firmly reasonable and non-personal.

Don’t accept responsibility for things are not your fault.

7. Set Boundaries and Keep Them

Terribly hard, important, essential and…………. very difficult.

The author starts this section by saying: “if your narcissistic boss behaves in a way that you can’t accept, you must tell him”. The problem, as Price goes onto say – and which is the point I make above – is that this may not help.

However, in my experience you have to do this whatever the consequences. As Price goes on to say, you have to make your boundaries as clear as you can.

Her next piece of advice is also hugely important and beneficial: do not criticise the narcissist in public. Try to praise them as well as explain your problem and solution to them, (yes he created it, but he doesn’t care remember).

Looking back at my situation with Tom, I feel I could have applied some effective pressure on him if I had acknowledged what he was trying to do to save the company, but pointed out respectfully and assertively that I objected to the way he was going about it. This – may a degree – have oppressed my obvious personal dislike of him.

This would also have mitigated the last point below.

9. Don’t Compete

Because they simply have to have their own way, I believe that trying to compete with a narcissist – or in the case of a previous boss who was experiencing a similar problem with his superior – will simply be counter-productive, pointless and fatally compromising.

As Price says, thinking that getting better results, more sales or other tangible evidence if you are doing a good job, won’t cut any ice with them; they will not treat you better or act fairly (objectively) towards you.

Facts aren’t convincing to a narcissist. They will assume you are doing good work because of what they taught you. Your efforts should be his. As Price says, you can’t win, so don’t play!

The final point that Price makes in the article is the key for someone with Asperger in such situations, only in a more pronounced way. Working for a narcissist requires damping down yourself to comply with their requirements and self-view. It is not easy, but doing so will help you survive – until you find a better boss.

And the last point echoes my advice from my experience. Think very carefully how you interact and react to such personalities. Your aim should be to protect your own position so, if necessary, to buy yourself some time. Ultimately, as I have mentioned, the best bet is often, as Price says, to find a better boss.

Play along until you find something more advantageous.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome