9 effective tips for navigating narcissism at work
While the term ‘narcissist’ has quickly woven itself into the language of popular culture, knowing how to deal with this antagonist personality can still hold a lot of confusion and misinformation.
While it’s true, narcissism is common, it’s important to remember that it’s not defined by an inflated ego or someone who takes a lot of selfies. Narcissism is a specific personality style that can cause a lot harm and distress to those who have to navigate it.
So how do you know if you’re working with a narcissist? Here are some of the most important indicators. We’ll then explore specific examples of what you can do to help yourself with a focus on the work environment.
Masterfully manipulate situations and other people to get what they want.
Demonstrate an impressive skill at making absolutely everything about themselves.
Have little to no (genuine) empathy for other people’s problems or challenges.
Use people solely for status or what they can get out of them – casting them aside with little regard when they’re no longer needed or they stop 'playing ball'.
Gaslight you at every turn, which is a consistent process of someone denying objective reality in order to make you doubt your own sanity and thus gain or maintain control.
Be extremely quick to anger or shift into narratives of blame and shame when they sense they are being criticised or questioned in any small way.
Say cruel and insulting things in a casual way, often trying to wrap them in a ‘joke’ or a back-handed ‘compliment’ – then blaming you for not having a sense of humour when you rightfully take offence.
Divide and conquer (known as triangulation), where they share information, gossip or lies about you behind your back as a way to damage your reputation, manipulate a situation in their favour or pit people against each other.
Play the victim in all situations (covert narcissism) or the superior one who always knows best regardless of the skills held by themselves or other people (overt narcissism). Sometimes they switch between the two.
Show one face in public or in team situations and a very different one in private. Which unfortunately makes things far more complicated when others people start protecting them, think you're misinterpreting their behaviour or see you as the problem.
I know that is a LOT. But if you’re reading this post I’m sure you’re familiar with most (if not all!) of these points.
For the sensitive souls among us who want to paint everyone in the best light as possible, I know that reading a list as direct as this can feel a little uncomfortable. But with gaslighting being the go-to choice in the narcissistic tool-box (and the key tool that keeps their behaviour unchecked), it’s absolutely critical that we speak directly to what is truly going on.
This is the only way we can empower ourselves to break free from the haze that keeps us stuck and confused within these harmful dynamics.
So what can be done about it?
My top tips for dealing with narcissism at work
If you’re trying to navigate a narcissistic boss or narcissism in the workplace, my heart goes out to you. Unfortunately this is a dynamic I’m familiar with, and I know how painful and destabilising it can be.
While the most ideal situation would be to never have to deal with a narcissistic boss, the reality is, sometimes there’s no other option. Maybe we’re in our dream job or the role will springboard our career. Maybe we simply have to pay rent or have other goals and responsibilities the job allows us to focus on.
In any case, when leaving isn’t an option right now, here are some of my best tried and tested tips for navigating such a relationship with a little more ease.
Be super clear and consistent about who you’re dealing with
Not everyone is terrible all of the time, and narcissists are very skilled at saying all the right things when they sense that they’re losing their control. There’s a word for it, it’s called ‘hoovering’.
“Hoovering works by exploiting a person’s vulnerabilities. A narcissist is often skilled at understanding what a person wants and giving them exactly that as a way to draw them in.”
– Simply Psychology
Top tip: Do what you can to hold onto your truth, and come back to this post any time you need a stabilising reality check. Wherever possible, confide in a trustworthy peer, coach or friend who is familiar with your work and the challenges with your boss. It’s important to have people to explore difficult situations with so that you can hold onto reality, and avoid blaming everything on yourself.
Accept that you will never please them or get the recognition you deserve
It can be really sad and frustrating to accept, but you’ll never get the thanks, recognition, apology or appraisal from a narcissist that you deserve or may hope for. They simply can’t or won’t see reality the same way as you do. So, it’s pointless even trying
"Hope can be dangerous."
– Narcissism specialist Dr Ramani
Top tip: Prioritise learning how to validate yourself and measure your success against your own terms. Find a coach or therapist to help you develop a rock-solid self-esteem.
Focus less on empathy and more on self-protection
I know what you’re thinking… isn’t my empathy my strong point and what separates me from a narcissist!? Yes. However, so many of us confuse empathy with allowing and enabling someone’s harmful behaviour. Empathy can look like understanding why someone is the way they are, and feeling for their struggles. It doesn’t mean letting them treat you badly because they have ‘wounds’.
Top tip: Dial up self-care and become smart about protecting yourself.
– Mateo Sol: psychospiritual teacher & author of awakened empath
Keep things super professional and limit sharing personal information as much as possible
The narcissist at work will never be your friend, and simply can’t be trusted with personal information. Even if it seems inconsequential, they are skilled at ‘data mining’; utilising and manipulating any information that could be used to put you down, hold you back or sabotage your progress.
Top tip: Have SUPER high boundaries around what you share with (or around!) them. And if you’re worried about seeming standoffish or rude, try the strategy called the ‘Yellow Rocking Approach’. This is where you keep your tone light, friendly and interested to disguise the fact that you’re not really giving anything away. If in doubt, always quickly ask them a question in return. There’s one thing you can rely on with a narcissist; that they love the opportunity to talk about themselves.
“Toxic people make you think you’re holding a grudge, when you’re really holding a boundary”.
– Mel Robins: change and motivation specialist
Know how to communicate in a way that protects you
When you understand that the sole desire of narcissists is to perceive themselves as good and right, learning how to get around them can be a little easier. This is where the question “Would you rather be right or happy?” truly comes into play. As much as it isn’t fair, arguing with a narcissist is absolutely pointless and will only harm yourself and potentially your career.
Top tip: Let the little things go. Practice playing them at their own game. Get what you need by communicating in a way that makes them look good, strokes their ego and seems like it’s you who is doing them the favour.
This comes with a caveat! Narcissistic people are often abusive. If you are dealing with an abusive boss or colleague, and it feels safe to do so, always speak out. It would be wise to go straight above their head, involve HR and get support from a trusted friend or colleague who you know believes you and has your back.
“There’s a reason narcissists don’t learn from mistakes and that’s because they never get past the first step, which is admitting that they made one.”
– Simply Psychology
Know what is your responsibility and what’s not
Don’t expect a job description to be respected by a narcissistic boss, as they will always judge you based on what they expect from you, not from what you are contractually obligated to do. And what they need can change by the day or even the hour. Always remember that while they can make your life extremely challenging, even they have to generally operate within some basic legal rules.
Top tip: Know your job description and the commonly agreed priorities and goals like the back of your hand while also getting clear on your scope of flexibility. This will allow you to show your willingness to be a team player, while helping you to know and express your non-negotiables. Bringing your annual goals to all of your appraisals is a good idea.
In any case, knowing your responsibilities is great for self-improvement. It’s tempting to disregard everything they have to say. And let’s be honest, most of it you can. But find any grains of truth in what they call you out on, even if it’s communicated in an inappropriate way. This will help you to cover your back on anything you truly want to improve on, or could be used against you as you develop your career.
"In subtle or overt ways, the narcissist has frequently communicated: 'What's wrong with YOU? You're crazy.”
– Dr Mike Dow: Psychotherapist
Know why you’re there and keep your eye on the prize
Narcissists are very skilled at drama and disruption, meaning it’s very easy to get sucked into their universe and forget the main reason why you took the job in the first place.
Top tip: Create specific goals related to what you want to get out of this job, and check back regularly to hold yourself accountable.
“Once you have had a narcissist in your life, you must develop your intuition and learn to listen to it and act accordingly.”
– Tracy Malone: Narcissist abuse support
Think long term and have a get-out plan
The truth is, you can’t work with a narcissistic for very long, if you want to experience fulfilment and joy at work. The steps mentioned above can help but they aren’t a long-term solution to thriving at work. And let’s be honest, injustice is real. You can do all of these things, be the perfect worker and still get screwed over when the people you are working with uphold a toxic culture.
Top tip: Always have a get-out plan. Stay anchored to why you are there, and find ways to reach these goals as quickly as possible. Ironically, the unhappy situation you are in could be used as the kick in the butt you’ve needed to find a new job or finally set up your own business. Utilise your remaining time in the role to leverage the network that you get from that position, stand out from your boss’s shadow and make your own connections as you forge your own path.
While each relationship is different, narcissism shows up in pretty predictable ways. So I hope this post and these tips will be supportive to you. And I especially want to underline point number 9.
In our mind over matter cultures, it can be easy to mistake strength with not letting things bother us or putting up with mistreatment. But as the famous philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti so wisely said:
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Work is a type of ‘society’. And the truth is, these kinds of relationships and environments make us sick in the long run. As someone who has experienced these dynamics, I’m particularly passionate about supporting other professional women to get out, pave their own path and reclaim their power and success on their own terms.
If you’ve been dealing with a narcissistic boss or work environment, and are ready to do what’s in your control to get happy, healthy and fulfilled in your life and work, I’m here to help you.
You can explore my current coaching offerings by clicking below, or simply book in a free discovery call to explore bespoke packages where I can offer unique support to help you navigate a narcissism within your career.