How to Deal with a Narcissistic Manager ~ When You Can't Leave Right Away
If you’ve identified your manager as narcissistic, borderline, psychopathic, or in other words, toxic, it can make you want to run for the hills and get as far away from them as possible!
And if you research what to do, the most popular advice is to leave your job. And that makes sense. This person is toxic! If you smelt toxic fumes, you’d get away fast and find fresh air, right?!
But what if you can’t leave your job right away? What if you have an obligation to stay, at least for a while. Or maybe it’s just taking longer than you’d like to find a new job. Then what should you do?
I know first hand how hard it is to work with someone toxic. I once moved my family thousands of kilometres interstate for a job, only to realise when I got there that the manager was completely dysfunctional!
It wasn’t practical to pick up our family and move on immediately (although in the past I’ve done this, even when it wasn’t practical, and I would add that I’ve never regretted those decisions). But this time around, we stayed, and through necessity, I had to deal with a toxic manager.
The strategies below are designed to help you handle the day in, day out, of facing someone toxic at work, so you can maintain, (or get back!) your energy, sanity, health and happiness. Please note these are short term strategies only, until you can leave the unhealthy environment. The longer you stay in a toxic relationship, even a working relationship, the more damage it can cause you.
Call it Out
You’ve probably already done this! But this is a good reminder. If this person is toxic, call it out, not to the entire world (although you may want to, so in that case, perhaps choose a few trusted people for that) but call it out to yourself!
Recognise the part of you that thinks “this person is toxic/crazy/unstable/dysfunctional/insert your own descriptive word here”
It’s okay for you not to trust them and to dislike being around them. If this is how you feel, give yourself ample validation. Back your own judgement and keep it front and centre of your mind, because it’s important to remember that this person is toxic.
Understand their Toxic Blueprint
Get specific. Gain an understanding of what their toxic blueprint is by recognising their particular bad behaviours. Do they talk ad nauseam, or about others behind their backs? Do they constantly change the goal posts, pit coworkers against each other, create tension using silent treatment, contradict themselves or create drama out of nothing?
Do they seek unnecessary amounts of your attention, reassurance and advice? Make a mental note of the exact behaviours that define them as a toxic person. Don’t spend too much time on this, once you get the key themes, over analysing their crazy behaviour is a waste of your time and energy.
Once you've identified this person’s toxic patterns, you can expect this pattern of behaviour to continue, so you can be more prepared. If their toxic blueprint is that you can’t trust a word they say, then you can predict lies and nonsense to come out of their mouth. In addition, expect the unexpected and be ready for their attempts to shock, punish and dramatise.
If you played with a pig, you’d expect to get dirty.
I once worked with a colleague who made zero effort to participate in team work to get a job done, despite her coworkers pointing this out. So when a big project came around, I had zero expectation they would help. In the past I’d gotten really angry at the injustice, but once I recognised their pattern, and that they wasn’t going to change. I predicted and accepted their behaviour.
The project was going to take longer to get done. Simple. And it bothered me so much less.
Decide what your response will be in advance if you can. Even if it’s deciding, “I’m going to remain calm”.
I worked with a manager once that would talk ad nauseum at the very start of the day. If I stopped to listen, it would throw out my entire day, I’d be late for clients and unprepared. I decided if I could avoid getting into conversation in the first place, great, and if not I’d give her a couple of minutes to express anything necessary and then find reason to break away.
Oh it sucks to be in a toxic environment, it really does. If there is a (tiny) upside, it’s in the knowledge of narcissism, so you have a framework for understanding their behaviour. This person believes the whole world revolves around them, so any way that you can frame your interactions as revolving around them, the more favourably they will react.
I’ve certainly seen people “play the game” and try and get along with narcissists. You’ll never really win in a direct disagreement with a narcissist though. I think winning comes from breaking free and creating an amazing life, away from them.
Pick your Battles
This one is really up to you. When you understand that your manager is narcissistic, you know that they will most likely take things personally. This can help you “pick your battles.” You might be the sort of person that wants to fight for every injustice, for some of them, or maybe you don’t usually stand up for any of them.
I’ve personally tried them all! Fighting for nothing and being a doormat wreaks havoc with your sense of self and leads to codependency over time. It might give you less conflict in the short term, but it’s not a good long term solution. Fighting over every indiscretion can leave you, well, constantly fighting. But it depends what your goal is.
If your number one goal is healing from narcissistic abuse, you might choose the fight option. By fight I just mean stand up for yourself. When you say no to what you don’t want enough times, the universe eventually starts to listen!
When my number one goal was to heal from narcissistic abuse, once and for all, I fought for all my rights. I faced the fears of speaking up and implementing boundaries. I also walked away from a number of situations and jobs! It was a turbulent time! But, to me, it was completely worth it for the massive amount of personal progress I made.
If you don’t want to be a doormat but you don’t want to be in constant fight mode either, maybe just fighting for the things that are most important to you would be your happy medium.
If you are working on speaking up more and standing your ground, first identify what you’d say and practice saying it, alone. With practice you’ll get more comfortable finding your words e.g. ‘I’m not comfortable with this ...’, ‘I’d prefer it if...’ Standing up for your truth may not feel completely comfortable. But it will develop your self worth so much, and it will get easier over time.
Tune in with yourself and go with the strategy that is right for you, right now. There may be many variables you want to consider. And what’s right for you can also change over time.
If you’ve experienced toxic relationships in other areas of your life, then no doubt you‘ll have had some emotional healing to process and some boundaries to put in place.
Implementing boundaries and working on your communication is fantastic. But trying to practice all the good stuff of healthy relationships with someone toxic isn’t easy.
You may prefer the gentler approach of removing the narcissist from your life, recovering your self esteem, then working on valuing yourself enough to receive better quality people into your life, and then start with implementing boundaries.
If you want to go full steam ahead and stand your ground with a narcissist, just be prepared for some turbulence.
Find what works best for you by what feels best.
Avoid taking their behaviour personally. View their actions as the manifestation of their toxic personality and use this viewpoint to create an emotional distance between yourself and them.
They are going to be dysfunctional regardless of what you do, or don’t do, say or don’t say. It’s just who they are. You are not going to change that.
Also, your life outside of work has nothing to do with them. It would be wise to withhold personal information from them. Many toxic people try to extract information from you to lure you into a false sense of security or to use against you later, or both! You do not need to indulge them, and you do not need to explain yourself.
It’s important to recognise that narcissists are energy vampires, they feed off other people’s attention and emotions (good AND bad), especially if they feel like they had an influence in producing those emotions. This will feel like a spark of power or an energy boost for them. A bit like how a child might feel by running up to a flock of birds and ‘making’ them fly away.
Focusing on maintaining your energy levels or ‘state management’ is key if you are frequently around a toxic person.
As a general rule, do more things that feel good and increase your energy (like fresh air, healthy food, uplifting music and spending time with good vibes people) and do less things that drain your energy (watching bad news, eating junk, and thinking of the toxic person and how terrible their behaviours are).
Refrain from punishing yourself and your body with comfort food on a regular basis, it will just bring you down in the long run. Having a toxic manager makes it more vital to take care of yourself, not less.
Take a regular inventory of how you are feeling and of your energy levels. Recognising when you are low on energy can be so helpful as you maybe more likely to be triggered emotionally if you are tired.
If your emotions do get triggered, check in with your energy level. Then decide if it’s worth it to you to react to them.
I remember working with a toxic manager when I was recovering from a cold and finding them easier to deal with, because I simply didn’t have the energy to care about their dysfunctional perspective. I was focused on my healing, and I wanted a drama free life.
I tried to keep an element of this distance even after my cold healed by focusing on myself. Directing your energy into a bottomless pit of toxicity is of no benefit.
Leave your emotions at home. Whether your feeling super happy or super annoyed, think Swiss, be neutral. If your emotional state is consistent and non reactive each day, they will hold less power over you. They won’t be able to provoke a response. And they’ll hate it. They don’t need to know how much you need those days off. Stick to the facts where a narcissist is concerned.
Become Boring, at Least to Them
Have you heard of the grey rock method? It’s where you act uninteresting and bland, literally as if you were a grey rock. Being uninteresting is your superpower! Toxic people tend to be attracted to and like creating drama. So if they are behaving badly by trying to lure and manipulate you, you can apply this method so they become uninterested in you.
Keep your distance
Find subtle ways to minimise the amount of time you spend with this person. Can you work in a different area of the building to them? Can you schedule your days off when they are working?
Taking breaks is so important when you have a toxic coworker, especially if you can’t get away from them at other times in the working day! Even a bathroom break can give you some valuable time away.
Make sure your breaks are taken away from the narcissist. If you are around a narcissist, it isn’t really a break, is it ?
If you work in a small space, find a reason to grant yourself some away time. Maybe you need to “take a personal call”, get fresh air, go for a walk and eat lunch outside, retrieve something from your car, listen to a podcast or anything with your earphones in. Just make sure you get some distance.
If you work in a culture where breaks are not routine, remember, they are often a legal requirement. You do not need to explain yourself or your legal rights to have a break. So make sure you look up your entitlements and start taking them.
If you have to interact with them more on a particular day, pay attention to whether this has an effect on your energy levels. If it does, plan something you’ll enjoy for later that will ‘top up your energy.’
It’s important to stay grounded in who you are and your own reality, especially when you are around a narcissist. If you feel yourself coming off centre, you can centre yourself in an instant by practice a simple grounding ‘I’ statement that brings you back to yourself.
An ‘I’ statement reminds you who you are, and what you stand for. It puts you back in your power by bringing your focus back to your centre.
Fill in the blanks below to create your personal grounding statement.
I am (insert your name)
I am (insert your age)
I love (insert something you love)
I value (insert a couple of traits you like in yourself or others)
For example, my ‘I’ statement could be:
"I am Marie-Claire. I am 35 years old. I love chocolate. I value empathy and honesty."
Create your own and repeat it often, have it ready to use whenever you feel this person is getting too close, or trying to divert your energy onto them. This may sound ridiculous, but this person is so intent on putting their reality on to you, they are not able to see or hear you as an individual person. You must remember your own individuality, so you don’t get swamped up in their toxic reality.
Take up Space
On your commute to work and right before you enter the workplace, take some really deep breathes of fresh air. Fill up your lungs, open up your chest, stand up tall. Oxygen is energy! Let it in.
Enhancing your posture by standing tall in turn enhances your confidence and self image. Your mind and body are connected, so even if you feel like your fronting for now, stand up tall, take up space, your mind will eventually catch up with your body.
Know that you can stand your own ground, you have the right to be here, to take up space, to stand up tall, to express yourself. You have the right to be yourself. And you can look forward to breathing in some deep fresh breathes of air again when you leave work!
Be sure to plan something you look forward to doing for when you finish work. Even if it's something as simple as going for a short walk outside, going to a great coffee shop or heading home to curl up on the sofa with your favourite cup of tea and a good book.
Throughout the working day, especially if the toxic person is acting up (which you can expect they will) remind yourself of your future plan. You are your own person and you can detach and find joy in many other areas of your life.
I’m Here to Work, That’s it.
Ideally, we would all love to work in a nice environment and get value from our job, but if that is not the case, or if your manager is behaving particularly badly, try the mentality of ‘I’m just here to do my job.’ Go to work, do your job and go home, and make it as simple as that.
In Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he actually advises against this mentality as it fosters codependence. He says our fear of consequences can create risk averse living at home and at work. And goes onto reveal a common response to this is to become increasingly independent, doing our job, but then focusing on our own life (just like I suggest!).
He discouraged blaming others and promoted taking full responsibility for our lives and an interdependent way of relating to others, given that we need to work with others through necessity.
And indeed we do.
I do wonder though if this advice include's personality disorders (I haven’t yet read the entire book - so I can only assume it does). It’s certainly not my goal to encourage codependence. And that’s probably why most people advise to leave a toxic environment, because you will never make it healthy.
But if this is a narcissist you are dealing with. Narcissists do not inter relate. If your manager is not able to put their own ego down for one minute, this is a short term coping strategy, whilst you formulate your plan to move on. I just wanted to include this to show the long term effects of staying in an unhealthy situation.
Find the Joy
Try to find some pleasure in some area of your work. Maybe you enjoy working with particular colleagues, or helping clients. Are there any perks you enjoy, like the free coffee?! Or the friendly barista you see everyday on your commute?
Take a moment for yourself to feel the pleasure and gratitude for those parts of your day, no matter how small.
Should you Complain?
Toxic people should be held accountable for their behaviour, but they are not able to take responsibility for their behaviour. If you’ve ever chosen to speak up regarding issues to them, you’ve probably already noticed this.
If they are clearly breaking company etiquette, or worse, the law, you may want to investigative the situation further and conduct an “informal risk analysis” to help you decide whether to put in a complaint to senior management or Human Resources.
It would be nice if all complaints were treated fairly, but I don’t believe this is the case. The success of a complaint depends on many factors. Hence why you should do a preliminary risk assessment.
The (Informal) Risk Assessment
This might sound sneaky, but it’s not really. If your manager is behaving in ways they shouldn’t, then you might want to conduct a personal risk analysis of whether or not to complain:
Try to gauge how their relationship with management is. Do they have a good relationship? How is the company performing financially under them? Do they regularly butt heads with management?
Be subtle in how you do this, you may not know who you can trust, so make a point of listening and observing. You might naturally find out all you need to know.
If they are great for business and seem to keep up appearances with everyone else, your complaint may fall flat. But if figures are down and they are underperforming, management might be more keen to hear about what else they aren’t managing.
Also, what is your co-workers experience of working with them? Are you the only unhappy one, or is everyone feeling the strain? Do they have any allies in the workplace? If they have everyone on side and are just bullying you, you’ll need to have very strong evidence.
If you do decide to complain. I'd recommend a team approach if that is doable. Knowing how narcissists operate, they will use underhand tactics to diminish another’s character, and this is harder to do against more people. More people = more evidence.
Even if you're not planning to make a complaint against your toxic manager, keep a record of their behaviour just in case. This is also for your own sanity! Its validation that this crazy stuff is really going on!
Create Space for Yourself
If you find yourself emotionally triggered when you are at work. Give yourself the space to process that, away from your manager.
Taking five or ten minutes out of the day (or even 30 seconds sat with yourself in the toilet cubicle!) just to get some breathing space is well worth it! Get those feelings out there, feel and express them in whatever way works, even if it's having a rant to yourself on the way to the car to drive home.
I used to go to lunch time yoga classes right near one place I worked and I swear. it got me through the day!
Find Your Allies
Reach out to your network of family and friends for some support. Have your army of people you can go to and tell them the nonsense that is happening so they can (hopefully) validate and support you. Having someone you can confide in can go a long way.
Be disciplined and give yourself a limit to how much you talk about and think about your situation. This is ‘rich advice’ coming from me because I can really struggle with this!
But by retelling a story, to yourself or to another, you’ll be working yourself up repeatedly. And you’ll be feeding the narcissist your energy.
If you can, get out your frustrations and then focus on solutions. Then put a boundary in place with yourself, that when these moments to relive the experience come up, you can remind yourself “no, I'm not thinking about that now.’ Your work is not your entire life.
Stick, or Twist?
Whether you stay at your job may depend on several factors. Factors like the severity of the narcissistic abuse, your tolerance, your priorities, maybe on your career goals, financial or family situation, or even contractual agreements. There can be a lot to consider. In the end it’s your personal choice.
I once started a new job and the manager was so controlling. She was offended by the noise of me typing on my keyboard - After my training period, I never made it through my first day. I just had to get out of there for the sake of my own sanity. I had little financial resources at the time, so in that sense it may have seemed a bit crazy. But I couldn’t tolerate it, and I was willing to take the risk.
I haven't always been so bold though. As I said, whatever action (or inaction) you decide depends on many factors.
That said, from my experience, working with someone toxic can create so much negative energy in your life that it’s hard to attract something more positive, i.e a great new job! But as soon as I did walk away from a toxic work environment, I found new opportunities and doors opened up for me, and I could incrementally improve my life. I'm certainly not telling you to just quit your job with no backup, please make decisions that are right for you.
Explore Your Options
Whatever your situation, whether your job gets much worse, ends suddenly, or if leaving just isn’t an option, right now, Explore the idea and the infinite possibilities of what you might want to do in the future. Allow yourself to get excited about your future. This will help you to create it.
Stay positive because anything can change, you don't know what’s around the corner. Keep your energy sacred, focus on yourself, take action where you can, and stay open for new opportunities to come your way.
In summary, if you find yourself in a toxic work environment, be sure to:
Validate how you feel
Understand their toxic behaviour
Plan your responses in advance and decide what you want to fight for
Don’t take their behaviour personally
Focus within and on your own energy
Become boring to them, keep a neutral disposition
Weigh up the risks before complaining
Plan your future, and get excited about!
I’d love to know how you get on implementing these strategies, or if you find some other things that work for you. You can reach me at email@example.com. Also, you can get a free copy of my workbook, How to heal from narcissistic abuse and become a self empowered healer, here. I hope you love it x