So Your Boss Is A Narcissist? Run For The Hills

At their initial meeting, Sally* was impressed with her potential new boss, Robert*. The conversation was lively, Robert had read Sally’s resume in detail and posed some smart questions, and Sally was impressed with the vision he had set for their small consultancy. Sally walked away from the meeting convinced she had found the ideal role, where she could put her skills and passion to work, with an equally passionate boss who would respect her and set challenging assignments.

But Sally, self-reliant and conscientious, the ultimate team player and always looking for ways to improve, started to notice a few things that concerned her a few months into her role. There was an inner circle formed around Robert – none of whom seemed particularly talented, but to whom Robert seemed to defer on everything. Then Sally was appointed to run a major account, which she saw as a great opportunity to stamp her name on the business. But she became disappointed when Robert ran interference on the account, becoming involved in minutiae, ignoring her ideas and blocking her from key meetings where she felt she could have added value.

But it didn’t stop there. There seemed to be new initiatives and projects popping up almost weekly, but nothing was getting bedded down. Eventually Sally sought out a 1:1 discussion with Robert, her intent being to better understand where the business was headed. When asked the question “What can I do to help you?”, the response, after an awkward silence, was “I’ll get back to you”. At which point Sally knew she had made a mistake.

“He saw this as dissent, and would use information as power to freeze people out of conversations”

Robert was displaying all the key characteristics of a narcissist. He would listen only for information he would seek. He was not proving to be the teacher she thought she had found, but rather a speech-maker and indoctrinator of ideas that seemed to be borrowed from the latest article he had read. He would dominate meetings; keeping others outside the inner circle at arm’s length, and become extremely uncomfortable when others would make constructive suggestions about ways to improve. He saw this as dissent, and would use information as power to freeze those people out of conversations.

Sally had only been with the consultancy for about nine months. She didn’t want to head back into a difficult job market after such a short period of time. So she had to make some decisions about how best to manage the situation, and after a period of consultation decided on the following strategies:

She resolved to look outside work for her self-esteem. As a great mentor and team player, who derived a lot of her self-esteem through her work, this proved very challenging for Sally. But eventually she realised she had no choice. The prolonged silences from Robert that eventuated after the 1:1 led her to believe she had done something seriously wrong. She began to doubt herself and her abilities to a level not experienced previously. Eventually, Sally sought out a coach who showed her ways to compartmentalise the various components of her life, and look to maximise the self-esteem opportunities that presented from her family, community and personal health pursuits. While she could still derive genuine self-esteem from some of her work achievements, this would be limited to self-assessment. She needed to get used to virtually no support from Robert, where interactions were limited to instructing, rather than coaching.

Managing the inner circle. Sally had several interactions with Robert’s inner circle. While she struggled with their shamelessly sycophantic behaviour, she resolved to remain professional in her dealings with them. When Robert produced good work, she made sure to also provide authentic feedback to the appropriate member of the inner circle. But she was also careful to ensure that if she disagreed with an approach the consultancy was taking, upon speaking with a member of the inner circle, to highlight how a different approach might be in Robert’s best interest. This was Sally’s way of staying true to her value set of speaking out for the good of the consultancy, while maintaining a level of control over her work.

Set aside time for networking. While the above two approaches worked to a degree, Sally knew that Robert’s narcissistic behaviours were not what she wanted from her leader. Ultimately, she knew she owed it to herself to look elsewhere for a more suitable opportunity. So she used the prolonged periods where Robert was ignoring her to begin networking assiduously. Sally derived immense satisfaction from this process. She was taking control of a bad situation, and using the knowledge she had gained from this experience in her due diligence process for her next role. In particular, she used LinkedIn to look for patterns when she found an opportunity of interest to her, in terms of the networks her next boss kept, the depth of their postings, and their interests outside of work. She became familiar with the warning signs. An over-representation of glossy photographs on social media profiles (often with high flyers), and lots of short, admiring comments from followers on a LinkedIn post were the indicators of potential bosses to avoid. And picking up the phone to speak with people who have worked for a potential boss still hasn’t gone out of style.

Of course, narcissism is not going away in the workplace any time soon. The collective image we hold of great leadership is personified in several narcissistic strengths – the ability to attract followers, see the big picture, and create compelling visions for organisations and their people. They are also excellent at convincing people they are creating the future, usually through convincing speeches, and tend to ooze charisma. Organisations with high growth agendas will more than likely look to a leader with narcissistic tendencies. They tend to rove in packs, bringing on board their own people, and clear out the existing senior leadership shortly after arrival. A narcissist is extremely dependent on their followers, from whom they seek (and usually receive) adulation and affirmation.

“As a narcissistic leader begins to believe more and more in themselves, they may start to ignore those close to them, creating an unenviable prism of isolation”

So will a narcissist turn on a member of their inner circle? Absolutely. The inner circle provides much-needed oxygen to a narcissistic leader. If the leader feels that supply is under threat, either through questioning or lack of response, the inner circle member won’t be exempt from the treatment Sally received. Alternately, as a narcissistic leader begins to believe more and more in themselves, they may start to ignore those close to them, creating an unenviable prism of isolation. This rarely ends well for the narcissist, or the organisation under their control. Enron is probably the best-known global corporate failure that fell victim to narcissistic leadership, and in Australia we have seen massive shareholder value destroyed at AMP, Telstra, NAB and others where the leaders have made crucial errors of judgment, failed to take advice, and display little or no regret for their actions.

Sally did eventually secure a new role before the consultancy led by Robert failed. She could never really work out how he got to be in the position that he was. But most importantly, she now has her radar switched on for the warning signs so amply displayed by Robert. She is still amazed how easily she let his behaviour trigger self-doubt in her. She still has to catch herself when she meets a charismatic person – that of course doesn’t automatically make them a narcissist. Overall, the experience has helped her in selecting the projects she works on, and the causes she supports. But she knows she will never work for a narcissist again, no matter how attractive the role may seem.

Names have been changed to respect anonymity.

References sourced in the completion of this article:

“What To Do If You Work For A Narcisstic Boss”, Kelly, J. Forbes, August 16, 2022.

“How Narcissists Climb The Career Ladder Quickly”, Robson, D. BBC Worklife. September 2, 2021.

“Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons”, Maccoby, M. Harvard Business Review, January 2004.

ABOUT LEWIS

Cadence Leadership Advisory is a leadership development business specialising in coaching people, team leadership and development, strategy review and organisational culture.

Its Founder, Lewis Williams, has over 25 years of leadership experience gained through senior roles at NAB, HSBC and Bendigo and Adelaide Bank. A Graduate of AGSM@UNSW, a Graduate Member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), and an Approved Advisor with Advisory Board Centre, he instigated and drove development of the 2021 paper “Organisational Culture: Beyond the Intangible” with other alumni of the AICD. He is also an accredited CultureTalk practitioner, a training and development platform that activates the framework of personality archetypes for the growth of leaders, teams, brands and cultures.

FOUNDER: Lewis Williams

EMAIL: lewis@cadenceleadershipadvisory.com.au

MOBILE: 61 (0) 477 371 665

LINKEDIN: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lewis-williams- cadenceleadershipadvisory/

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