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7 Signs You Have a Narcissistic Boss—and Why They Can Make Your Life a Nightmare, Says a Psychotherapist

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It's hard enough to be around a narcissist. It's worse when one is your boss.

Having a narcissistic boss doesn't have to literally mean your manager has a personality disorder, says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist, psychology lecturer at Northeastern University and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. Some bosses simply display narcissistic behaviors — like lacking empathy or making everything revolve around them — that can turn your life into a nightmare, she says.

"Narcissistic bosses can take a big toll on your happiness, your relationships and can even make you burn out," Morin tells CNBC Make It.

A 2020 study led by researchers in Pakistan found that narcissistic leadership has a negative impact on employees' job satisfaction and well-being. Interestingly, it had less of an effect on job performance — but it still drove up employee stress and intentions to quit.

Narcissistic people land leadership positions because they "act like they know what they're doing, and do that with confidence," Morin says. Those workplace traits are considered especially valuable during times of crisis, like the Covid-19 pandemic or a potentially looming recession.

Ultimately, these leaders tend to hurt more than they help. Here are seven signs that you have a narcissistic boss:

1. They value admiration above everything

Narcissistic bosses purposely surround themselves with employees who shower them with compliments, valuing them over other employees who might do better work, Morin says.

That's because narcissistic bosses base their self-worth on admiration from others. "Flattery will get people quite far with a boss who's narcissistic," Morin says. "They'll do anything they can for admiration."

Those bosses may even find ways to praise themselves in public, Morin says. For example, a narcissistic boss might ask a close employee to prepare positive comments about them to share at a company-wide meeting.

2. They show very little empathy

A narcissistic boss may have little tolerance for your struggles at work or events in your personal life. If you call in sick or have a family emergency, they'll likely insist that you can still work — or have a snarky remark that dismisses whatever you're going through, Morin says.

"They might say, 'Well, why can't you work? Is it really that bad? Are you trying to get out of doing work?'" Morin says, adding that they'll scoff at requests for time off, deadline extensions or help with tasks. 

3. They use anger and aggression as a tool

Some bosses can lose their temper on occasion. But narcissistic bosses use anger and aggression as a "manipulation tool" to control employees at work, Morin says.

Those bosses might pound their fist on a desk, raise their voice or humiliate employees who speak out against them. They use that kind of behavior to scare employees into doing what they want, like staying silent about concerns they might have, Morin says.

"They will punish anybody that goes against them, so no one dares to do the same," she says.

4. They flaunt being above the rules 

A narcissistic boss will go out of their way to show everyone that rules don't apply to them, according to Morin. Their goal is to remind employees that they're superior and more entitled to certain privileges.

For example, a narcissistic boss might let employees book conference rooms at the office, but reserve the right to kick anyone out at a moment's notice if they deem one of their own meetings more important. Or, they might say employees can't work from home, but "I can do that whenever I feel like it," Morin says.

5. They'll never admit their mistakes

You'll never see a narcissistic boss admit they're wrong, Morin says. They'll deny everything, even if others witnessed their errors first-hand, and will gaslight anyone who mentions the mistakes. 

For example, they may forget to tell you that a certain assignment needs to be done — and then, when you don't complete it, they'll insist that they told you to do it. They won't admit that they forgot or gave you unclear expectations.

"They'll swear up and down that they gave you the right directions," Morin says. "They'll gaslight you, try to make you feel crazy or that you're not doing a good job."

6. They always try to seem like the hero

A narcissistic boss will always put themselves in situations where they can seem like the "hero of the story," Morin says.

They might credit for their company's big jump in profits, or even stage a problem so they can be first to solve it, she adds: "It all ties in with their love for admiration. They want to be thanked for supposedly saving the company."

7. They always speak with authority

Speaking with authority can be a great leadership trait — but when narcissistic bosses do it, they often use it as a way to inflate their own reputations, Morin says.

They might exaggerate their own achievements, say they have the right answers when they don't or give directions that don't account for anything that could potentially go wrong.

"They'll talk and lead everyone so confidently," Morin says. "But they're probably not willing to entertain the idea of failure, or what to do if plans don't work out."

How you can respond

In a perfect world, you wouldn't have to work for a narcissistic boss — but this isn't a perfect world, and you won't be able to change how your boss behaves, says Morin.

Use these signs to recognize if your boss is a narcissist. Once you know, you can change how you respond to them by making an effort to set clear boundaries and not taking the harmful things they say too personally.

"You might not have the means to quit your job and try to work for a different boss," Morin says. "So there's ways to exercise some control over the situation."

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