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Narcissism and Emotional Intelligence, Part 2: The Narcissistic Leader

We hear it over and over again: “People don’t leave a job, they leave their boss.” And I would venture a wild guess that most of time the aforementioned boss is a narcissist.  

This is the second post in a series on narcissism, focusing on narcissism in the workplace. I strongly recommend reading Part 1 before going on to this one unless you are already acquainted with the symptoms of Narcissism and the structure of narcissism as understood in the Three Dimensional model of Emotional Intelligence.  

As a consultant who works with a variety of organizations all over the world, I get to hear a lot about bosses and leaders who are difficult to work for. As an example, let’s consider one woman I have coached—we’ll call her Mary. She works for Evelyn, who is highly valued by corporate because of all the sales she brings into the company (most of which comes from Mary). Evelyn is warm, friendly and generous—that is until you differ with her, have your own opinion or fail to “appreciate” her. Then she’ll cut you into little pieces, all with a smile on her face. Evelyn has to be in control and Evelyn has to be right . . . all the time.  She seldom (if ever) owns her part in a problem but always takes credit for a success, even when others had as much or even more to do with the outcome. Does Evelyn sound like anyone you’ve ever worked for? Is her approach similar to one of the partners in your firm, or perhaps to someone who has held a public office in your lifetime?  As a result of working for Evelyn, Mary found herself suffering the all-too-common symptoms of stress and distress, putting her at risk for compromised health (perhaps cardio-vascular disease or immunity problems), accidents, increased mistakes, decreased productivity and general unhappiness. Narcissists get rid of their bad feelings by making everyone around them feel and act badly—and then they get mad at those natural reactions.  

As I discussed in part one of this series, the most useful way to understand (and eventually deal with) a narcissist using the three-dimensional model of emotional intelligence is actually quite simple: Narcissists live mostly in the -Red dimension without the correction of +Yellow and +Blue. They have all the attributes of Power without vulnerability, true empathy, genuine care or respect for others, or ownership of their own faults (these missing aspects are all Heart attributes). They are also without self-control, patience or tolerance for frustration and complexity (attributes of Mindfulness). And when you don’t have the correction of +Blue and +Yellow, your Red will always be out of kilter and negative (just as described in Masterson’s Seven Deadly Sins: shamelessness, magical thinking about one’s own importance, arrogance, envy, entitlement, exploitation and poor boundaries).   

The general rule of thumb in managing a narcissist is to confront (+RED) the narcissist’s negative behavior (–RED). This works fairly well with spouses and children. It is more tricky with a boss who has say in your bonus and can even fire you. So the best way to handle a narcissist in an organization is from the top down. But what if the boss is at or near the top? Or what if the organizational culture tolerates (and maybe even overtly or covertly reinforces) narcissistic behaviors from its leaders? Well, then you’re in trouble.  In such cases you either leave the company or you learn to (be emotionally intelligent and):

  • Move-Away (+Yellow) from them by not taking what they say or do personally. Try to create a “mindful space” between their toxicity and its impact on you . . . by knowing and observing them.

  • Move-toward (+Blue) them (while holding your nose). Like children, narcissists like to be understood and validated. Don't falsely validate them, but if and when they do something positive let them know that you appreciate that. This can calm them for at least a while.

  • Tactfully Move-against (Red+) by setting a boundary. Sometimes they will respond positively to a well-placed confrontation. Don’t expect them to apologize or acknowledge their wrong-doing; but if they get quiet (+Yellow) and treat you nicer (+Blue), you know that your confrontation worked. (If you get a pink slip, it did not work.)

 The most important thing that I can say about handling narcissists (bullies) in the workplace is to appeal to those who run the organization. It is your responsibility to create culture of zero-tolerance for narcissistic behaviors. Ideally, the place to start would be to avoid ever consciously hiring a narcissists. Unfortunately, they can readily sneak in because they have the capacity to be charming—in which case the next line of defense is to be consistent about disciplining those who show themselves to be rude and crude. If they don’t change after several attempts to help them put them somewhere else where they will do less harm, or let them go Clearly, your options are limited if they are the only one who knows the “secret sauce” or they’re the owner’s daughter. In such cases your emotional intelligence skills are your only hope for coping.


Sam Alibrando