Egotistical managers can be a positive force at work. Their narcissism can make them confident and able to make bold decisions, especially in ambiguous or uncertain situations. And, if the company is just starting out, they’re great leaders for new groups of workers. But if they believe the organization has treated them unfairly somehow, watch out.
There are ways to tell if the boss is a narcissist
There are clues for these things. Narcissism refers to the degree to which your boss has an inflated sense of themselves, and how invested they are in having this positive self-perception constantly reinforced. These bosses will seek attention and approval continually. They’ll find as many opportunities as possible to demonstrate their superiority over others, and they don’t learn from past mistakes. They can be over-confident, nasty and vengeful if their self esteem is threatened.
When they feel unfairly treated, bad things happen
They expect others to acknowledge their superiority and they demand complete respect. They believe they are owed things like raises, bonuses, public accolades and promotions. So, if they get passed up or overlooked for a special project, treated rudely or disrespectfully by a higher up, they’ll feel unfairly treated. Which threatens their positive sense of self, and leads to problems for their staff.
The supervisor will start to engage in extremely self-interested behaviour. Worker or company interests go out the window and the boss may start to use his or her position to gain financially or personally. I once worked with an organization grappling with this kind of manager. He found loop holes in company policy around his expense and discretionary spending account. The company was losing thousands of dollars due to his suspicious spending and he was able to make the case his charges were allowable. He was also too valuable to let go. Staff knew about the questionable spending and couldn’t say anything for fear of retaliation. Speaking up becomes dangerous for workers, so they stay quiet. Having to maintain this kind of silence can really hurt ethical staff, and blowing the whistle can lead to job loss.
If the manager feels really hard done by, they may start to withdraw. They won’t do their job, they’ll provide as little help or direction to staff as possible. They’ll become impossible to get a hold of and ignore calls, email or texts. I met once with a boss who completely retreated. He started disappearing, following a disrespectful interaction with some important stakeholders. He took it out on staff. He ignored any work having to do with the stakeholders, refused to respond to emails from staff about them, or attend meetings to discuss them. It was like the stakeholders had ceased to exist for him, but staff bore the brunt.
As you can imagine, this behaviour takes a toll on staff…
Workers contend with a lack of direction, follow-through or assistance from their supervisor. It becomes very hard to get your work done. They may witness him or her doing things against company policy, like engaging in time theft or using company supplies, tools, or contractors to work on their own projects. The pressure to stay quiet is enormous and it leads to feelings of frustration, confusion and worry.
There are things staff can do, of course. Telling the company what the boss is up to is difficult, especially if decision-makers don’t listen, or are afraid to do anything. Workers can end up being retaliated against. Many bide their time waiting to see if anyone with authority notices their boss’s stonewalling or dishonest behaviour. If a worker isn’t getting the direction they need, it’s important to keep a record of times you ask for help. Note what decisions you are forced to make without much feedback, and refrain from making big decisions on your own. The boss is trying to create a bottleneck on purpose and staff could bear the brunt of decisions they make without authorization. This is not the time to be pro-active.
There are things organizations can do to deal with it
The research indicates that narcissistic managers can act appropriately if they work in environments typified by collaboration, positive feedback, fairness and healthy boundaries, including clear expectations for how to treat staff and clearly articulated consequences for not doing so. This kind of environment tends to activate more socially appropriate behaviour because egotistical supervisors will try to enhance their positive view of themselves by pleasing others, demonstrating moral behaviour and doing things that win admiration. They’ll tend to respond well and less aggressively if they get positive feedback from others regularly, and if they know they are expected to treat staff well, they tend to follow suit.