By Linnda Durre, Ph.D., Author of Surviving the Toxic Workplace – Protect Yourself Against Co-workers Bosses and Work Environments That Poison Your Day published by McGraw Hill, February 19, 2010.
As a business and corporate consultant and psychotherapist, I’ve analyzed, worked with, and consulted with many difficult bosses over the years. In order to cope and deal with them, you need to know why they act the way they do and how best to deal with them, in order to earn their respect, get things accomplished, change negative situations to positive ones, and preserve your sanity.
In my twice-monthly column, I will help you cope with a different type of boss, whether male or female. The previous ones include: Dick the Dictator, Bashia the Backstabber, Sewell the Sexual Harasser, Carl the Control Freak, Paula the Passive Aggressive, Clayton the Clueless, and Greta the Gossip, Susie the Sugar Coater, Ian the Idea Stealer, and Al the Alcoholic.
This week I discuss another difficult boss — Nancy the Narcissist, who is like Amanda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada” played by Meryl Streep. The world revolves around her and she has no empathy or understanding for anyone. Proceed with caution.
SITUATION: Narcissism is a pattern of self-centered and selfish behavior. They can be aloof, snobbish, cold, arrogant, haughty, patronizing, and exhibit contemptuous behaviors or attitudes. They can be exploitative, manipulative, take advantage of others, and use people to get what they want and then discard them, not really caring about the costs or how it affects other people.
They will expect you to work late, come in early, give up your lunch hour – all to meet their demands, do their errands, and please them. Remember what Andrea Sachs from “The Devil Wears Prada” had to do for Amanda Priestly – get her coffee, find a copy of the unreleased and upcoming Harry Potter book, find her a private jet during a storm though no planes were allowed to take off, etc.
Narcissists can be male or female. You can tell most of them by how impeccably they dress – their clothes, shoes, hair, make-up, nails, accessories, and every detail are all planned and usually of the highest quality – name brands and labels are status symbols to them. Most narcissists surround themselves with “Yes people” because don’t like confrontation or anyone to disagree with them. They insist on having everything go their way. You are merely a cog in the wheel; you are a minor planet who revolves around their sun.
Narcissists don’t have friends, they have fans. There are two groups of people that narcissists associate with that pass for what they consider “friends” 1) Fawning groupies and blind loyalty from adoring sycophants, both whom they use. They have a great deal of disdain for normal, ordinary, average, and hard working people and feel “those people” are worthless and they will suddenly and coldly drop them after they serve their purpose, or 2) people with more fame, beauty, talent, connections, accomplishments, wealth, and/or status in whose reflected glory they can bask and name drop. Acquaintance is the more apt name for what they term friend.
Having real friends would constitute equality, sharing, candor, vulnerability, and being there for and listening to someone else in good and bad times. Narcissists are usually incapable of such emotions. It’s difficult to get close to them, and they avoid real friendships, relationships, and true intimacy.
They have fantasies of unlimited success, power, intelligence, wealth, status, fame, and love. and live in their own little worlds. They don’t like to face grim realities like not having enough money, being ill, getting a bad grade, looking less than perfect, or failing at anything. They rationalize, project blame, and come up with myriad excuses as to why something didn’t work out for them, rather than see how they created it themselves or allowed it to happen.
They have an exaggerated sense of self-importance and embellish their achievements and talents, or they expect to be recognized as superior without earning it. Their grandiosity makes them believe they are special and have a sense of entitlement so they think they deserve special treatment. They think that they should always be able to go first and that other people should stop whatever they’re doing to do what they want.
When they don’t get their way, they can react with pouting, guilt trips, crying, hurt or rage. They can lash out, saying cruel and hurtful things. Sometimes they avoid apologies and sometimes they say their sorry in a phony, sugary, immature way just to get you to do something else for them or to come back and work for them, making promises they will usually never keep.
They require a daily diet of ego food so they need a great deal of admiration, praise, compliments, and expect to be bowed to – sometimes literally! They expect you as their employee to deliver all of that to them daily, and take their temper tantrums and hissy fits. So you have to set limits and establish boundaries.
Narcissists lack empathy, compassion, and understanding. They can’t identify with other people’s problems or plights and don’t want to hear about any of it. They have a hard time “walking a mile in another’s shoes.” They can be (secretly) envious of other people and sometimes believe others are envious of them. It’s their defense to bolster their own fragile ego that is built on appearances rather than inner psychological and/or spiritual strength and substance.
EXPLANATION: Their childhoods most likely were emotionally deprived – not enough bonding, love, attachment, and caring from their parents. They grew up believing relationships were dangerous and learned to avoid them. Others had childhoods where they were overly praised, never had to work for anything, were given everything they asked for, and were pampered. They grew up without realistic expectations, were told they were perfect and they learned to live in their own little world. Many had narcissistic parents so their role models were faulty, yet they emulated their parents with the accent on appearances, clothes, status, money, jewelry, elegant homes, and materialism, believing that gave them self worth, self esteem, and happiness. Oh how wrong they are! They built their identity on those superficial and superfluous values like building a house on sand. Have some compassion for how empty and worthless they must really feel inside.
SOLUTION: Get a recommendation letter from Nancy BEFORE you talk with HR or confront Nancy yourself because you may be burning your bridges with her when you confront her. Do the “Best Scenario to Worst Scenario” exercise that I discuss in my book to prepare yourself for all possible fall out from this.
When listing your choices, make sure you include – getting fired, receiving the cold, silent treatment; her retaliation in petty ways, being yelled at privately or in front of others, and all other possibilities. Then you must decide what you’re going to do next, so have your action plan and exit strategy lined up before you confront her. If you stay, you may always be her “whipping boy,” so weigh and balance your choices and take a stand.
Some people like to go to HR first before saying anything to Nancy. They will report her negative, demanding, and toxic behavior to HR and ask them to deal with her.Make sure you have evidence and proof with date, time, and place of all her unreasonable demands, transgressions, and hissy fits. Include phone messages, times of her phone calls, lists, etc.
You may want to have witnesses, other co-workers who will join you – there is safety and strength in numbers when making complaints. If no one volunteers, go by yourself.
HR may ask you to confront Nancy directly in front of them in their HR office. Sometimes they will deal with Nancy directly by themselves without you there. Either choice may be effective, sometimes either choice might be a total failure. It depends on the situation, the HR executive and the “Nancys” of the world.
When you deal with Nancy, be as tactful as possible and start out with genuine compliments – her commitment to excellence, elegance, and perfection. Then go to one behavioral issue that you must ask Nancy to stop, correct, or modify. Be as specific as possible, giving her examples of her demanding and unrealistic behavior and how you’d like it to change for the better. End positively about why you like working with her.
Narcissists hate criticism because they feel that are perfect or because they know they’re not and it simply brings up their character flaws, which they usually don’t accept, acknowledge, or even think they have. They don’t like to be told they are wrong, flawed, or doing anything wrong. They believe they are perfect and like to stay in a position of power and control. It is difficult to do with a narcissist, yet you must set limits to preserve your sanity.
Be prepared to be fired when and if you confront your narcissistic boss and/or for the cold freeze out response and the silent treatment. They may retaliate to get back at you for the slightest thing. They may demonize you, spread rumors about you, and/or talk about what a difficult, incompetent, and/or crazy employee you were.
Some may attempt to change if ordered to do so by HR. If she doesn’t improve, go to HR again and discuss it with them. Ask for a meeting with Nancy and the head of HR. If they do nothing, go to Nancy’s boss and ask for a meeting. Be prepared to be fired or you may have to quit if it gets too emotionally stressful for you. There’s a better job out there for you!
Remember Anne Hathaway’s character Andrea “Andy” Sachs in “The Devil Wears Prada” had to quit. She couldn’t take it anymore, especially after she lost respect for Amanda’s double dealing, lying, and manipulation. And she ended up going back to her first love – investigative journalism to further social causes.
When and if you confront Nancy, you many want to say something like this: “Nancy, I enjoy working here and I admire your commitment to excellence, your style sense, and your command of your department. There are times I find your demands unrealistic and you don’t understand that I have a private life. I need to leave at 5 o’clock, and I won’t come in at 7 or 8 in the morning. Running personal errands for you is not in my job description. I do my work, and I think I do a very good job. There are times you seem impossible to please. No matter what I do, it’s not good enough and you criticize and nitpick over minor details that really don’t matter. I’d like you to relax, reel your demands in to earth level, and learn how to compliment me and others on a job well done. I am as committed to excellence as you are, and work is eight hours of my life every day. I enjoy working here and I hope we can come to an understanding and agreement on things. If not, I may have to report you to HR or look elsewhere for work. I’d rather continue working here. Thank you so much for listening and I’d like to hear what you have to say. I hope we can have a dialogue about this.”
—Linnda Durré, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, business consultant, corporate trainer, national speaker, and columnist. She has hosted and co-produced two live call-in TV shows, including “Ask The Family Therapist” on America’s Health Network, which was associated with Mayo Clinic and aired from Universal Orlando. She is the author of “Surviving the Toxic Workplace: Protect Yourself Against Co-Workers, Bosses, and Work Environments That Poison Your Day” (2010 – McGraw-Hill). The book’s website is: www.survivingthetoxicworkplace.com
She has been interviewed on Oprah, 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Daytime, Good Morning America, and The O’Reilly Factor (twice), and the national and/or local news on ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR, PBS, Fox and CW. She has written for Forbes, Orlando Business Journal, and American Cities Business Journals. She is the host and producer of “The Linnda Durré Show,” which airs daily on 810 AM Radio in Central Florida and streams live on global audio on computers at www.BIG810AM.com M-F from 12-1 PM (ET). For more information about her consulting or speaking, contact her at Linnda.Durre@gmail.com and 407-739-8620.