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How to Spot and Survive a Narcissistic Boss

Social media may be amplifying your exposure to self-entitled leadership.

Key points

  • Social media may be contributing to narcissistic leadership.
  • Narcissistic decision-making is becoming more prevalent in professional circles.
  • Employees with narcissistic bosses can benefit from avoiding provocations, changing their expectations, and seeking support.
Mike B/Pexels
Source: Mike B/Pexels

Former U.S. President Donald Trump once boasted, "My primary consultant is myself." We all know people who crave attention, shamelessly namedrop, have an inflated self-image, and seek relentless praise. These behaviors are also attributed to narcissists—a term that evokes curiosity and caution.

In today’s era, elevated use of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram may contribute to people's narcissistic tendencies. This affects the workplace. As a result, you may be at risk of working for a narcissistic boss. The ability to spot and survive a regime of the narcissistic decision-maker may be the difference between realizing your potential—or not.

Spotting a Narcissistic Boss

Narcissism encompasses an overblown sense of entitlement and self-importance. It goes beyond ego and veers toward an extreme need for recognition, legacy, and fame. It’s easy to think of limelight-cravers in the Twittersphere, movie theatre, concert, or sports stadium. A 2006 study found that reality TV personalities, actors, and musicians are typically more narcissistic than the general population. This may also be prevalent in business. And according to three decades of research, this is typically more common in men than women.

While psychologists measure this with the Narcissistic Grandiosity Scale, Psychological Entitlement Scale, or Narcissistic Personality Inventory, it’s possible for you to spot characteristics by observing extreme traits. Nine symptoms can signal this underlying condition:

  1. Limelight hogger: Requires constant admiration, interrupts, and craves obsequiousness with employees.
  2. Oxygen sucker: Rarely allows room for anyone else’s opinions or needs.
  3. Grandiosity: Exhibits self-importance by extravagant boasting or name-dropping.
  4. Glory hunter: Rejects advice, maintains a high locus of control, and prefers "I" to "We.”
  5. Charmer: Appears intelligent, articulate, and socially adept, yet is also prone to arrogance.
  6. Blamer: Allocates blame easily and doesn’t accept responsibility for failure or error.
  7. Tantrum thrower: Exhibits defensiveness and won’t take performance criticism.
  8. Low empathy: Shows little regard for others and forms shallow relationships.
  9. Emotionally dominant: Puts others down to reinforce self-appointed superiority.

As these behaviors span a spectrum, it’s possible that your boss exhibits fledgling traits. Traits can also intertwine making it hard to disentangle them as there’s no simple demarcation with human behavior.

Narcissistic leadership isn’t new—it dates back centuries. Julius Caesar’s vision for the Roman empire is legendary as is Adolph Hitler's obsession with implementing the "superior" master race. But the use of social media among professionals is amplifying this tendency.

Is Social Media a Contributor?

A study from Korea shows that people higher in narcissism tend to post selfies more than counterparts lower in narcissism. Grandiose exhibitionism is global. A survey of 10,000 Millennials found that 64 percent think Instagram is the most narcissistic platform followed by Snapchat. Many admitted deleting posts that don’t get many likes—such is the shame of unpopularity. It’s not just Millennials who post perfectly curated scenes. On a recent holiday, I spotted a baby boomer making at least five costume changes to ensure the perfect sunrise shot.

Are professionals above shameful self-promotion? Does your boss solicit likes on platforms or casually point out posts "you might find useful"? Articulate, clever individuals succeed despite it—or, sometimes, because of it. We don’t tend to condemn exhibitionist colleagues as narcissistic even though self-aggrandizement can be contagious and individualism can both toxify culture and dilute teamwork.

A Bright Side?

Harvard research suggests narcissistic can leaders add value by turbocharging social progress. Their risk-taking can be more extreme. Since the 1980s, the self-promoting CEO grew in popularity as Bill Gates, Ray Dalio, and Steve Jobs graced magazine covers. Today, many companies cultivate individuals with the courage to shift in new directions. Ironically, some narcissistic people are found to inspire significant followings based on their ability to charm.

But narcissistic people also achieve adverse notoriety. Just as narcissism can be synonymous with success, magazine covers also feature self-absorbed Ponzi schemists, rogue traders, and scandalized CEOs.

A narcissistic personality disorder is often confused with psychopathy, typical of serial killers like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, or the Golden State Killer. While psychopaths are antisocial and lack total empathy, narcissists tend to be more grandiose and self-adoring. A charming veneer can easily mask the difference. In their 2006 book, Snakes in Suits, Drs. Paul Babiak and Robert Hare argue that some organizational leaders can exhibit similar traits to psychopaths.

Surviving a Narcissistic Boss

The ability to spot workplace narcissism is only half the battle, but it’s a start. How can you navigate and survive a regime under this type of boss? As a behavioral scientist, I offer some tips.

  1. Don’t poke the bear. With an extreme need to feel important, the narcissistic boss will be defensive and counterattack. You’re likely to become its prey rather than its master. Don’t casually apply this inflammatory label.
  2. Change your expectations. Concepts like teamwork, kindness, and listening are redundant under this regime. Be realistic. Visions can be as flamboyant and unstable as their owners. Don’t live in false hope about your talents being recognized. Consider moving roles, departments, or even companies where necessary.
  3. Solicit support. Human behavior is complex. Although you may feel confident in influencing the narcissistic person, it’s unlikely. Gain independent support when you feel it’s warranted.
  4. Understand the character. Narcissistic decisions are rarely intentional. Experts suggest an emotionally deprived childhood contributes to this need for recognition, played on a public stage.

Narcissistic leaders make decisions that affect not just you but also those around you. Honing an early warning system for this personality type can act as a long-term source of power—improving the odds that it is you who graces the covers of magazines—and for the right reasons.

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