What to Do If Your Boss Is a Narcissistic Bully
If you’ve been in the workforce long enough to have a few jobs under your belt, you no longer have unrealistic expectations about your boss. You’re neither best friends nor drinking buddies, and as long as he or she is a reasonably sane person at whom you can occasionally smile as you pass each other in the hallway, it’s all good.
Unfortunately, even this humble scenario can be too much to ask for. Sometimes, your boss can be an insufferable tyrant who delights in tormenting underlings, and who only seems happy making a direct report weep with despair.
Does this sound like anyone you work for? If so, you have our sympathies. But what can you do about it, particularly if you don’t have the luxury of quitting your job?
Believe it or not, even the most difficult workplace personalities can be safely managed, provided you know what to do. We asked career coaches, attorneys, and advocates for their recommendations when it comes to managing this type of personality.
Here’s how they suggested addressing the ogre boss constructively, without consequences for your career, life, and limb.
Keep a Paper Trail
Mags Westra is Operations Manager at Swan Waters, an online resource for people recovering from emotionally abusive relationships. Yes, you can have those on the job too, and long ago, Westra was in just such a situation. She worked for a physically abusive boss, and though she did eventually leave the job, it took time for her to work up the nerve.
While your employer may be smart enough to know not to put a hand on you, verbal and emotional abuse can be just as damaging. If you think you’re in such a situation, Westra said do three things – document, document, and document.
“Save everything you can; create a paper trail where you can,” she said. “Even if emailing yourself ‘journal entries.’ Email them so they are date stamped. Keep everything, however irrelevant it feels. Should the situation blow up in your face you have some evidence to back you up.”
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Westra said that you don’t have to keep your diary of abominations a secret from your employer. In fact, you may get the point across faster by sending your boss the emails you use to document everything.
“I took to emailing my boss after meetings, saying things like, ‘From our meeting, I have taken away A, B and C,” she said. “That helped create a paper trail on personal meetings.”
Silence Is Golden
Colin McLetchie is president of Five Ways Forward, a leadership and career coaching service. He once had the privilege of reporting to a person whom he described as “a pretty frequent yeller,” who was in the practice of calling after meetings with a litany of high-volume grievances.
“I put the phone on mute and continued working while I let him vent,” McLetchie said. “Eventually he said, ‘You’re not saying anything.’ In a very quiet voice, I replied, ‘I can’t hear you when you yell at me.’”
After what felt like a very long silence, McLetchie received an apology, and the supervisor agreed to do his best to curb such behavior. He even said that the relationship with the supervisor has improved considerably.
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“It worked wonderfully,” he said. “By allowing silence to do the work, I was able to allow him to notice and ask, versus me trying to butt in and change him. So try silence, and see if the boss notices.”
Don’t Feed the Troll
Avery Blank is an attorney, consultant, and women's advocate who describes herself as “a bulldog ballerina -- graceful, strong, and persevering.” She said that people who find themselves in an abusive boss scenario have a few options, all of which revolve around not participating in the psychodrama, no matter how your boss may have set it up.
“If your boss is always difficult, his or her emotions and treatment of you have nothing to do with you,” she said. “Do not take it personally or get emotional.”
Blank explained that your boss may believe that he or she is powerful, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually true. She advised not buying into it, even if you feel intimidated by the dynamics of the situation. Furthermore, she encouraged pushing back.
“Sometimes these types of bosses respect only those who can hold their own,” she said. “Try speaking up for yourself. When they see they cannot walk all over you, they may stop their behavior.”
There’s Always St. Helena
Jane H. is a store manager in Cincinnati, Ohio, who has found a unique way of dealing with her narcissistic boss. It hasn’t solved the problem to an extent that she feels comfortable disclosing her name, but she has managed to find a way to cope when steam geysers of rage shoot out of her boss’ ears.
“Last week I moved some items in the store I manage,” she said. “He exploded. ‘Why is this not where I put it?’ ‘This isn’t what I want!’ ‘You can’t see my picture!’”
Jane explained that when this happens, she generally allows him a two-minute temper tantrum, at which point she says his name, their agreed-upon “safe word.”
“After he calms down, he can listen to reason and logic, as long as I don't ‘blame’ him,” she said.
Jane gave him credit for learning on his own when he’s behaving unacceptably, but she conceded that the situation is still far from ideal, and she wouldn’t mind if one day, he simply wasn’t there any more.
“I frequently remind myself that Napoleon finally got shipped to St. Helena, and my boss will go that way too,” she said.
Anu Mandapati is a leadership coach and the founder of IMPACT Leadership for Women. She said there are three approaches to dealing with this type of personality in the workplace – the indirect approach, the direct approach and the “better” approach.
“You can inform your boss that in the interest of the team working more effectively, the group should get together and do a stop, start, continue exercise -- what you should stop doing, start doing and continue doing to be an effective, productive group,” she said, describing the indirect approach. “Since this is in a group context it may nudge your boss into making some minor individual changes if he or she thinks that the changes are by the whole team, instead of just himself or herself.”
The direct approach, by contrast, involves marching down to HR and going on the record. Chances are, Mandapati said, you’re not the first or the last to do so.
“Talk to HR first about your objective experiences with specific details including witnesses,” she said. “Then approach your boss by stating your intention of wanting a more effective working relationship. Share your experiences and ask what both of you can do to make it better. Have regular follow-ups with two-way feedback. Discussing your concerns with HR first should generally protect you from any potential retaliation from your boss arising from this conversation.”
Of course, there are no guarantees that either approach will make a difference. That being the case, Mandapati outlined what she characterized as “the better approach.”
“In my personal and professional experience, most of these types of bosses do not change and are not open to changing,” she said. “So your best option is to update your resume, begin assertively networking and find another job elsewhere. It may take some time but in the long run you will be much happier, less stressed and can enjoy your work life again.”