Signs You Are Working With a Narcissist

Reading Time: 5 minutes 
Reading Time with Exercises: 10 minutes 

Today, June 1, is World Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Day.

As a licensed therapist, I have worked with many talented people who have been exposed to narcissistic abuse in the workplace, which has complex and long lasting effects, including–but not limited to–PTSD and anxiety disorders. 

If you want to be an effective leader—whether you’re a CEO of a for-profit corporation or the leader of a small nonprofit that’s getting off the ground—it’s very important that you learn signs you may be working with a narcissist, and how to protect yourself and your employees.

Here are three signs you may be working with a narcissist–and tips on how to protect yourself and your team. 

1. Baseless accusations and criticism that sound like they’re from a junior high bully.

Narcissists are notorious for giving crappy feedback with no basis in reality. (Many leaders of marginalized identities have been conditioned to take this feedback seriously, due to intergenerational trauma. Intergenerational trauma is not your fault, but it’s your job to be aware of how it might show up in your leadership style.)

Here are some examples of “junior high feedback”:

-I just don’t like the way you ran that meeting. (Followed by no specific suggestions as to how to make the meeting better).

-You’re difficult. (Again, no specific suggestions as to how to be “less difficult,” such as having less stringent deadlines or more clear communication.)

-You’re being racist/sexist/prejudiced/ableist/homophobic/etc. (Without suggestions as to how you could be less racist/sexist/prejudiced/ableist/homophobic/etc, or even, “Read this book/article as I’m marginalized and don’t have time for unpaid emotional labor.” You’re just being a bad person and you will always be a bad person!) 

Self-Protection Leadership Tip: 

Ask one or more of the following questions in return: 

-“Can you give me evidence of that happening?” 

-“Could you be more specific?”

-“I understand that I may not be able to see things from your perspective due to my privilege and I don’t expect unpaid emotional labor from you. Could you give me suggestions as to an article/book/expert/blog to read on this?” 

Someone who is having a bad day will be able to give you answers to the above questions. 

Someone who is a narcissist will look something like this:

Either that, or they’ll double down with more hostility, accuse you of being the difficult person, or drop the matter altogether. Either way, it’s good information, and good information will clarify how to better protect yourself and your team from narcissistic manipulation. 

Team Protection Leadership Tip:

Make standards and expectations very clear to your team. Make it transparent that their performance depends on what you think and your feedback–not feedback the narcissist is giving them. Make it crystal clear that your team answers to you–not the narcissist. 

2. Triangulation.

Narcissists are notorious for having selective hearing in the workplace–basically, they hear what they want to hear when it serves them and are notorious for “forgetting” requests and information.  

Here are some examples of things that happen when you work with a narcissist: 

“He said he would change the policy. However, when I mentioned it to him he had ‘forgotten’ we had that conversation at all and accused me of being difficult for mentioning it.” 

“This person sent a rumor around that we were promoting an unsafe work environment when we literally had a safety expert come in the other day to talk to everyone! I just don’t understand what I’m doing wrong.” 

Self and Team Protection Leadership Tips: 

Read this article. (5 minutes)

3. Promoting their “pets” to leadership positions (whereas hard-working employees don’t get the recognition they deserve).

I use the word “pets” instead of “favorites”, because narcissistic bosses like employees who are less intelligent and capable than them, who are easily controlled and manipulated. 

This is, frankly, worse than a situation where someone might be the “Teacher’s Pet” in school. The “Teacher’s Pet” earns that status because they work the hardest, show talent in a particular subject, ask the best questions, or are kindest to the teacher when the teacher is about to quit because the rest of their students have been disrespectful jerks. The narcissistic boss’s pet has done nothing to earn this status aside from being easily controllable. (Ouch.)

If you notice that you’re working with many talented people, but that the most incompetent of team members seem to be promoted, you may be working with a narcissist who is championing “human pets” who don’t threaten their ego. 

Self-Protection Leadership Tip:

Remember that failing to get a promotion or title might have nothing to do with you. If you fail to be promoted over a narcissist’s “pet,” this is time to assess if this is the environment where you want to be working in the long run. Use this instance to motivate yourself to find another job, learn new skills, or make valued connections in your field. 

Team Protection Leadership Tip: 

To keep morale up in this environment, consider implementing your own ethical reward system for hard-working employees who don’t happen to be the narcissist’s “pets.” 

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Disclaimer:This blog does not replace in-depth, individualized help from a health professional or provide any diagnosis or treatment. By reading, you understand this statement and commit to seeking psychotherapy or medication support if needed. You also understand that Mari Verano, LLC will not be able to intervene in a crisis or court situation. Please seek your own legal and/or crisis resources.

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