How to Tell if Your Boss is a Narcissist and Why It Matters


Narcissist. Now there’s a label that’s being thrown around widely and often these days. And for good reason.

Quick. Off the top of your head, who do you think are the biggest narcissists making news in the past weeks, days…today?

We remember our Greek mythology and the story of Narcissus, right? The man who found his own reflection in a pool of water and fell in love with it. These days we’re a bit more sophisticated and have created the label, Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That sounds serious.

It is.

We interrupt this blog so I can throw in this observation before continuing with the NPD rant. If over 50% of Americans are indeed dissatisfied with their job and work environment, what percentage of that malaise do you imagine is due to unhealthy leadership?

OK. Back to our program, already in progress.

If you’re worried you might be a narcissist, then most likely you’re not. You’re exhibiting enough empathic self-reflection to discount you from the diagnosis. But if your boss isn’t even aware he may be one, Ding! Ding! Ding! We most likely have a winner.

Dr. Frederik DiBlasio of the University of Maryland, Baltimore is a noted professor, author and therapist known for his clinical work on personality disorders and forgiveness. He recently appeared on my wife’s radio programThe Dr. Linda Mintle Show. He listed nine standards or characteristics found in the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used to make psychiatric diagnoses); any five of these must be present and prevalent to diagnose NPD:

  • A grandiose logic of self-importance
  • A fixation with fantasies of infinite success, control, brilliance, beauty, or idyllic love
  • A credence that he or she is extraordinary and exceptional and can only be understood by, or should connect with, other extraordinary or important people or institutions
  • A desire for unwarranted admiration
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Interpersonally oppressive behavior
  • No form of empathy
  • Resentment of others or a conviction that others are resentful of him or her
  • A display of egotistical and conceited behaviors or attitudes

In other words, the narcissist is ALWAYS the “smartest” person in the room who can NEVER be wrong; thus unassailable and unable to accept critique much less criticism, he rules with utmost authority.

I urge you to take time re-reading the nine characteristics if you’re concerned about a co-worker or your leader. Think through the description and recall specific examples of how/when you have seen those behaviors at work. It’s far too tempting to quickly and facilely label someone a narcissist. So now that you have the list, use it carefully. And remember, you are not a licensed therapist who can officially diagnose a personality disorder.

But these standards should help you better understand what you’ve been working with all this time.

Narcissists are attracted to power. And most of them who have achieved a leadership position, knew where and how to find it. Because of their deep and (often) pathological need for unwarranted admiration, they believe their status is a well-deserved entitlement. I once had a boss who called it, “Noblesse Oblige.” Whether duly elected or handed the job by family or friends, the office provides an imprimatur to behave without reproof.

Do any of these behaviors describe your boss?

· A master manipulator

· Often makes bad decisions that can’t be/aren’t questioned

· Often envious of others and always wants to be the “cool kid”

· Offers grandiose plans that fail as often as they succeed

· The company they lead is more prone to being sued

· Has higher turnover rates than do organizations led by healthy leaders

· Is less likely to follow codes of conduct imposed on their followers

· Inclined to hire “team players” which becomes a euphemism for sycophants

· Inhibits collaboration and instead creates a culture of silos — often competing with each other for the leader’s attention and resources

In a sobering study published in Academy of Management Discoveries, the authors propose a new theory for understanding exactly how narcissistic leaders damage a corporation. Self-aggrandizing personalities create an environment that places little value on teamwork or integrity, hobbling a company’s ability to be innovative. And here is the scary news, because culture is known to outlast a CEO, they also warn that replacing a narcissistic boss is no guarantee that a corrupted culture will bounce back.

We need a prescription for working successfully with a narcissist since, most likely, your efforts at a coup d’état have (or will) fail. Back to the experts for help. Therapist, Dr. Linda Mintle’s blog “Doing Life Together” offers these excellent solutions when your relationship requires you to deal with your narcissist boss one-on-one:

· Respond without reacting. Reacting or overreacting only leads to increased drama. Think through how to best handle the situation so as not to increase conflict — a confrontation which you cannot win. Respond only after you have emotional control and have fully thought through your optimum responses/answers.

· When possible, don’t engage.

· Don’t waste time sharing your opinions. They won’t matter.

· Stop waiting for your boss to be empathic. It won’t happen. Don’t be intimidated. You will feel like the narcissist has the upper hand but remember, his or her intimidation is based on underlying feelings of inferiority. Because of this, you have to have a strong sense of self so as to avoid constant self-doubt. Do not allow the person to gaslight or manipulate you.

· Give admiration when and where you can. This may sound counterintuitive but it fills the empty void of the person’s deep need for validation. They crave love, yet the way they go about getting it pushes love away. So when you feel it is legitimate, give praise or admiration.

· Don’t be confused when they are charming with others and not so charming with you. Most narcissists have an uncanny ability to shift their behavior in different settings.

Narcissism may not make the list of the seven deadly sins, but the results of narcissistic behavior are often personally and professionally devastatingly disastrous. Learn to navigate these treacherous waters with the greatest of care.

Norm Mintle