The Narcissist in the Workplace:

Dr Darryl Cross
June 8, 2021

How do you deal with both narcissistic bosses and employees?

We have already discussed what a narcissist is in a previous article ("The Narcissist: What is it exactly?") suffice to say that the world famous Mayo Clinic based in Rochester, Minnesota defines the narcissistic personality disorder as "a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others".

Behind the grandiose exhibitionist presentation of self-enhancement is either the spoilt child who is the centre of their own universe or the individual who is masking a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

The Workplace Scenario

Peter Fowler is a 42 year old operations manager. He had been promoted over several other managers after only four and a half years with the company. A number of his peers had the feeling that Peter's promotion to operations manager came about more through office politics and "sucking up" to the CEO than it did from significant professional achievements. Although there were certainly a few people who were resentful, many were also impressed by his looks, his disposition, his charm and his accomplishments. Peter's wife was known to be extremely attractive, well-positioned in society and the mother of their two beautiful children. Rumour had it that his expensive cars, showy house and exclusive golf club membership were paid for more by his wife's family than by his own income or investments.

Increasingly, there were complaints from Peter's subordinates. His team did not appear to be a cohesive well functioning unit. Members of his team thought that Peter was relatively unconcerned about their well-being and professional development. They also thought that their projects were mostly designed to advance Peter's position and make him look good and there was also the notion that he was sacrificing production quality and efficiency for his own short-term benefit. Peter sometimes used his team meetings as a forum to air his grandiose ideas or even for blatant discussions of his personal power, brilliance and future success. Despites his dazzling success however, he was hypersensitive to criticism. There was unanimous agreement that he was intolerant of even the most constructive advice. Irrespective, Peter still had quite a following. He certainly sought out those in positions of power.
Although he seemed to tolerate direct reports who might be useful to him, he had little apparent concern for others beneath him. Those who might feel appreciated for a period would eventually end up feeling used and abused.

What are the Common Flaws of Narcissistic Managers?

As Stuart Yudofsky outlined in his 2005 book titled, "Fatal Flaws: Navigating Destructive Relationships with People with Disorders of Personality and Character", there are 20 common characteristics associated with narcissistic managers. They are as follows:

  1. They value loyalty in their subordinates or direct reports more than competence or productivity.
  2. They overestimate their own knowledge about nearly every area of the business or organisation.
  3. They do not appreciate the important contributions of others.
  4. They take personal credit for the accomplishment of others.
  5. They are competitive with and threatened by peers and competent managers.
  6. They micromanage competent subordinates in areas in which they themselves have little expertise.
  7. They insist on making all decisions – even minor ones – themselves often with insufficient information about and understanding of the relevant issues.
  8. They overstate their own and the organisation's successes – to the point of bragging.
  9. They never admit to making mistakes.
  10. They blame others for their own mistakes and failures.
  11. They distrust, intimidate, or fire subordinates who make independent decisions or raise concerns about their questionable decisions or business practices.
  12. They surround themselves with "insiders" who constantly praise and never disagree with them.
  13. They do not mentor their subordinates or advance their careers.
  14. They pursue highly visible (ie., flashy) short-term successes at the expense of supporting solid, long-range strategic plans.
  15. They misappropriate the organisation's resources for their personal benefit and self-aggrandisement.
  16. They devalue and underestimate the achievements of competitors in similar businesses or enterprises.
  17. The miss out on important opportunities by not recognising their own lack of knowledge in some areas.
  18. They display great deference toward and respect for their superiors to their faces yet criticise, devalue, and undermine them behind their backs.
  19. They respond to constructive criticism of their work with anger, defensiveness, and thoughts or acts of retribution.
  20. They prioritise their own ambitions for advancement over the needs of the organisation.

Know anyone who fits this description or behaves in these kinds of ways?

How do you to Cope with a Narcissist Boss?

Andrew DuBrin in his 2012 book titled, "Narcissism in the Workplace: Research, Opinion and Practice" provides a number of helpful hints about how to manage narcissists in the workplace. For example, note the following:

  • Assess the relationship realistically and understand the kind of person with whom you are dealing and that it is not you necessarily who is at fault; recognise that you may never really be validated in the workplace and that you will not receive any credit for good work done.
  • Maintain your professionalism and do not stoop to manipulative or sinister ways to try to get even.
  • Confront any problems gently and tactfully.
  • Focus on solutions and not the problem; narcissists like to focus on problems and dissect such repeatedly; simply state the problem and quickly move towards solutions.
  • Present several solutions; narcissists like to be in control so it is important to provide options; options make them feel like you respect their opinion and are asking them to control the process.
  • Document your accomplishments in that the narcissist will want to take all the credit for work well done so you need to ensure that you keep your own record.
  • Be willing to accept criticism because you're going to get plenty of it especially if you don't show total loyalty or gratitude or give constant praise; you need to be resilient and quietly stand your ground.
  • Maintain a strong network; this helps you to keep "normalcy" in your life and helps you to have a good support base especially if the narcissist boss starts to get aggressive or too arrogant.
  • Be prepared to walk away and resign; remember that the narcissistic boss will never change and you really don't need such a person like that in your life.

How do you Deal with Narcissistic Employees?

In the same book, Stuart Yudofsky outlines what to watch out for in dealing with
employees who have a narcissistic personality disorder.

  1. Do your homework in the selection and recruitment process.
    What is critical here is to do your due diligence. Phoning referees is really not going to give you the perspective that you're looking for. I know of various occasions when the referee has either deliberately withheld crucial information or purposely portrayed a positive viewpoint when the reality was anything but. Instead, check out Linked-in and Facebook and try to discern who might know the employee and where else you can gain an opinion on the person.
  1. Use the interview process wisely.
    During the interview, it is important to be aware of the characteristic behavioural and relationship patterns of people who might have a narcissistic personality disorder. For example, watch for comments from the interviewee
    along the lines of:
    "I was indispensible to my previous boss"
    "I handled everything in my previous employer's personal life"
    "The company was a complete mess before I came, but I fixed most of the
    "I left my last job because my efforts and contributions were not appreciated"

    In fact, Dr Sander van der Linden from Cambridge University argues in a "Psychology Today" article that the one simple question to ask the narcissist at interview is, "Are you a narcissist?" To most of us that sounds like a "dumb
    question". However, it is asserted that although this does sound counterintuitive, and normally, it wouldn't work to ask people directly about their personality traits, the narcissist is different.

    True narcissists says van der Linden do not appear to view their narcissism as a bad thing and in fact, are likely to be proud of it. A number of studies have shown that narcissists often admit that they behave in explicitly narcissistic ways and they happily describe themselves as arrogant and even strive to be more narcissistic! Narcissists also appear to be aware that other people view them less positively that they view themselves, yet they simply don't care.
  2. Do not accept personal favours or special treatment from any employee.
    With a narcissist you have been trapped if you do because you will be forced to pay back such favours in manifold ways where it could cost you your professional reputation and your career.
  3. Maintain clear boundaries and separations between your vocational and your personal relationships.
    As a leader or manager, it is important irrespective of the employee, to ensure that boundaries are clear and that there is no blurring of relationships, where personal relationships with employees can play right into the hands of the narcissist and confuse appropriate lines of responsibility.
  1. Never make a business or personal decision related to any employee that cannot stand the bright light of public scrutiny. If what you are doing has to remain a secret, this not only compromises you as a person, but plays right into the hands of the narcissist who will endeavour to exploit this for their own ends. Beware!
  2. Restrict access to confidential or commercially sensitive information.
    Only those trusted employees who are well known to you and who have built trust over a period of time ought to be privileged to access to such data. In the hands of the narcissist such information like Human Resource files or financial data relating to salaries or company profit for instance, could have devastating consequences for both the individuals concerned and the company itself.
  3. Ensure that you conduct and document regular staff appraisals on all employees.
    This is a critical monitoring process. In this regard, it is important to not only provide positive comments to the employee about their performance, but to recognise that everyone has areas on which they need to work and improve. Be aware of any employees who cannot accept any criticism (no matter how slight) and who over-reacts to fair and constructive comments. Not only is this a flag to a possible narcissist, but also highlights the employee who is not prepared to accept feedback and who in turn will not grow and develop. These people tend to become entrenched in their ways and often grow bitter and resentful, become unproductive and certainly impact morale and culture in a negative way.
  4. Be aware of any employees who seem to require inordinate amounts of praise and who demand special entitlements.
    This is typically a sign of a narcissist who although may well be contributing to the organisation, are clearly motivated by self-serving ambitions and would certainly not be a team player. Ultimately, they will affect team morale and productivity.
  5. Be aware of any employee who openly competes with their peers as well as devalues others including previous employers.
    Real narcissists have great difficulty (if nigh impossible for them) working as a member of a team as well as working towards team goals (instead of their own personal goals and ambitions).
  6. Be aware of employees who overstate or who overvalue their contributions to the organisation.
    Not only do these employees call attention to themselves and their efforts, but they typically cut corners to get where they want to go, and make short-term decisions in their own interests rather than longer-term decisions which benefit the company.
  7. Be aware of employees who are not satisfied or appreciative of fair and reasonable and even generous compensation.
    Typically, these employees see themselves as above everyone else and have a sense of entitlement that somehow makes them special. Their perceived lack of "adequate" salary or compensation means that these employees become angry and resentful and will probably undermine their manager or leader in sinister and manipulative ways.

There is little doubt that narcissists in the workplace cause a great deal of anguish anxiety as well as depression and have a way of sabotaging individuals self-esteem and confidence. Thankfully, we don't come across them every day, but we do need to have on our radar alert to pick up such individuals if they come into our space. In short, in my experience, nothing is going to change the narcissist, so your best strategy is to cope in the ways that are listed above and look for a quick exit.

Dr Darryl Cross is a clinical and organisational psychologist as well as a credentialed executive and career coach. He is also an author, facilitator, international speaker and university lecturer. Dr Darryl assists people to find their strengths and reach their goals. He works with businesses to facilitate communication and create positive cultures. Further information on Dr Darryl can be seen at and and he can be contacted at

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