While narcissists can be star performers at work, their management style can be damaging to staff mental health.

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a young man of incomparable beauty who fell in love with his reflection in the waters of a spring. So entranced was he by his own appearance that he refused to move, gazing at the surface of the water until he wasted away. 

Although his story ended tragically, the spirit of Narcissus still lives among us. Instead of fabled hunters languishing lakeside, notable narcissists these days are more likely to be realtors-turned-presidents or tech billionaires clamouring for cage fights. But Silicon Valley isn’t the only place this contentious personality trait can be found. You might not even have to look further than your own office. 

Dr Alex Wang, a management expert from the ANU College of Business and Economics, says narcissism is very common among bosses. The researcher recently evaluated executives at a public hospital in China and found that narcissist managers can have a negative effect on the behaviour of their employees.  

So, how can you tell if your manager has this trait? 

If your supervisor is prone to setting difficult performance targets for your team or overinvesting in certain projects, these could be signs of narcissism. And while they might not be in love with their own reflection like their mythological forefather, their high level of self-regard may be obvious.  

“Narcissistic managers believe they are more intelligent, creative and attractive than they actually are and have a strong desire for constant recognition, affirmation and praise,” Wang says. 

@erinmcgoff

Have you ever had a narcissistic boss…? Yeah. That can straight up traumatize you 😅 🤫 Narcissistic bosses usually don’t reveal themselves right away. They wear you down over time. 🔦 they’ll gaslight you into thinking you’re the problem 😈 they’ll pit you against your coworkers, creating toxic competition ❌ they are never wrong, everyone else is to blame 🏆 they have an excessive need for admiration & recognition & praise ✋🏼 they can’t take criticism & lack accountability 😘 they are manipulative and exploitative, playing whatever role they need to to get what they want …and more! 👏 you can’t win! If you work with someone like this, you simply need to leave (or hope they leave first). ❌ Do not try to reason, argue, or correct them. Do not show emotion. ✅ just be BORING 😐 and they will go find someone else to bother You got this 👏 #narcissist #npd #boss #coworker #mentalhealth #burnout #corporate #manager

♬ original sound – AdviceWithErin✨

But just because you suspect your boss has these traits doesn’t necessarily mean they will be aware of this. Nor are they likely to respond well to feedback.  

“It is very difficult for narcissistic managers to realise their own behaviours,” Wang says. 

“They rarely self-reflect, listen to others’ advice, or accept negative information about themselves or their decisions.” 

Studies show narcissistic bosses can bring benefits to workplaces such as higher productivity and creativity. American anthropologist Michael Maccoby coined the term “productive narcissist” to describe charismatic leaders including Bill Gates and Winston Churchill. 

But working for a narcissistic boss that has impossibly high expectations can elevate stress levels and have a detrimental effect on staff well-being.  

“When employees fail to achieve performance targets, lose the motivation to try or are even unwilling to come to work, companies should be worried about their mental health,” Wang says.  

He recommends job rotations, periodic audits and anonymous complaint mailboxes as strategies that can balance out a narcissistic manager’s tendency to push their team too hard. Speaking up when your workload feels impossible and asking for advice on how to manage this can also put the onus on your boss to provide solutions. 

In hiring and promoting people into leadership roles, Wang says it’s important to consider a candidate’s personality and how their behaviour may affect others.  

If you are struggling with your supervisor’s management style to the point where it is affecting your mental health, it’s best to seek support. 

“It is a good practice for employees to speak out about work-related concerns to their family members, friends or professional psychologists as soon as the issues arise,” Wang says. 

Top illustration: Anya Wotton/ANU

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