How to Spot a Narcissist in the Workplace

There are bad bosses, and then there are bad bosses. We’re talking about the managers, leaders and sometimes coworkers who steal credit for your hard work, never own up to their mistakes, and chip away at your self-esteem. 

They're narcissists, and, unfortunately, many workplaces have them.

Of course, not every bad boss is a full-blown narcissist. But if they exhibit these signs consistently, you’re right to be wary. 

They're charming at first, but don't be fooled

Narcissists are often charming and charismatic—at first. When you meet them, you’ll be lured in by their confidence and gravitas. They may even shower you with praise and compliments, telling you what a great job you're doing. Until you start working with them, that is. 

Make no mistake, this charm is a manipulation tactic, not genuine friendliness. Narcissists are masters of impression management, and they see everyone in their lives as pawns in a chess game. They will do whatever it takes to get you on their side, but only so they can persuade you into believing their ideas and helping them get their way. 

They're always in the spotlight 

You might have pulled an all nighter to meet that urgent client deadline, but somehow your narcissistic coworker or boss ends up taking all the credit. They’re always the star of the show, even when they haven’t done any of the work.

Narcissists will also hog the spotlight in meetings and in water-cooler chat. They have an amazing way of orienting all conversations back towards themselves, leaving you little room to talk about your own accomplishments or ideas.

But the worst part? They’ll never admit to stealing credit. Instead, they’ll twist and turn the situation until it looks like they were the ones who did all the hard work.

They're never, ever wrong (even when they are)

Humility is not a strong point for narcissists. They’re excellent at placing blame on other people, even for their own mistakes. They may vanish into thin air when things go awry so they can escape taking responsibility.

It’s not uncommon for narcissists to outright lie or throw colleagues under the bus when things go wrong. If you confront them, they may gaslight you or play the victim, making it impossible to have a healthy, productive conversation. 

You're either with them or against them

There are two sides to a narcissist's relationships—those who are on their side and those who are against them. If you challenge them too openly or they feel threatened by your success, they might put you in the ‘enemy’ box within their minds.

This is a horrible place to be. Narcissists lack empathy and have a huge ego. If  you’re not on their side, they’ll see you as an obstacle to be removed rather than a valuable team member with valid ideas. They will have no problem undermining you, spreading rumors about you, or even sabotaging your work or reputation in order to maintain their own power and control.

They take shortcuts and ignore the rules 

Many narcissists believe they are ‘special’ individuals. The rules are for normal people, not for them. Because of this, they’re likely to ignore standard procedures, cut corners, and throw ethics out the window in order to get their way. 

At its most extreme, this behavior can create a Wolf of Wall Street personality, where the narcissist is happy to con others and lie through their teeth to get to the top of the career ladder. 

It's their way or the highway

To a narcissist, their opinion is the only one that matters. They have an intense need to feel superior and be in control, so they will bulldoze over anyone who disagrees with them. If you have the audacity to suggest a proposal that goes against theirs, they might react with anger, which can be surprisingly intense. 

This is an intimidation tactic. The narcissist wants you to be afraid of disagreeing with them in the future, so they can maintain their position of power. 

They spread gossip like wildfire 

A favorite of both female narcissists and covert narcissists, gossip is not idle chatter but a war tactic. When a narcissist feels threatened by someone, they have no problem making up lies about them and saying less-than-flattering things behind their back. It's like a political smear campaign, only this time, it's wreaking havoc in the corridors of the workplace.

How to deal with a narcissist in the workplace

If you thought “yes, yes and yes!” as you read through the signs, it’s highly likely you’ve got a narcissistic boss or coworker on your hands. 

Firstly, we’re sorry. That sucks. Secondly, here’s what you should do about it.  

1. Play to their personality traits 

You can’t change a narcissistic boss, but you can learn how to manage them and stay on their good side. Read up as much as you can about the narcissistic personality type: how they operate, what makes them tick, what they like and dislike.

Then, lean into an interaction style that makes you an ‘ally’: stroke their ego, avoid sharing negative feedback and don’t take their criticism personally. 

We know that sounds 'icky.' But when it comes to a narcissist, survival at work means playing the game on their terms until you have your ducks in a row. Try to stay on their good side, but remember that narcissistic individuals are slippery characters. Don’t spend too much time with them one-to-one if you can avoid it. 

2. Boost your workplace soft skills 

Instead of being sucked into your narcissistic manager's orbit, take their behavior as a lesson on the importance of soft skills in the workplace. The idea is to be everything the narcissist is not, so you can stand apart on your own terms instead of trying to outmatch them at their own awful game. 

For example, you could brush up on your emotional intelligence. This will help you handle their manipulative behavior and also give you an edge in your own career development. 

3. Seek support

Even if you stay on your boss’s good side, working with a narcissist can undoubtedly take its toll on your well being and sense of self. So, look after yourself. Seek support from friends and colleagues who can listen empathetically and remind you of your strengths. 

Another idea is to seek out a professional mentor who’s been in similar shoes to you. They can provide you with relevant advice on how to manage your boss based on their own experiences. 

4. Keep a paper trail of offensive behavior 

Every time your boss undermines you, is abusive or steals credit, make a record privately. Narcissists have been known to gaslight and manipulate situations, so having hard evidence can save you from any potential harm they might cause to your reputation. 

While you may not need to take legal action, having a record of toxic behavior may come in handy in the future if you need to give your version of events, or you decide to involve HR.

5. Leave if you need to

In the end, we all hope that narcissistic individuals will expose themselves. However, this could mean years of waiting and suffering poor treatment in the meantime. If your narcissistic boss is making work unbearable, the bravest thing you can do is leave.

After all, we spend an estimated 80,000 hours at work. If you’re not happy, you can move somewhere better—hopefully without a narcissist in the cubicle opposite to you. 

Hannah Pisani
Hannah Pisani is a freelance writer based in London, England. A type 9 INFP, she is passionate about harnessing the power of personality theory to better understand herself and the people around her - and wants to help others do the same. When she's not writing articles, you'll find her composing songs at the piano, advocating for people with learning difficulties, or at the pub with friends and a bottle (or two) of rose.