Staying afloat while working for a narcissist
January 7, 2021 8:55 PM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend who is actively job searching but hasn’t had luck so far. How do you stay motivated when you work for a narcissistic asshole (who runs hot and cold)?

My friend is very smart, kind, and effective at understanding and solving the kinds of problems that crop up in a workplace. While I’m sure he has weaknesses like anyone, I’ve seen plenty of examples of him resolving conflicts and sorting out unexpected issues effectively. He’s also just kind of a walking encyclopedia and in better jobs he’s had, that has been an asset (and people value him). I seriously doubt he’s the problem.

He has a paraprofessional job and works with an assortment of people: various types of professionals, business owners, support staff, project managers, etc. He has never had any problems with anyone, except one client who was a known asshole, and his direct manager. The professionals he works with praise him regularly. It’s like his manager (who is not a professional) is jealous. When he was the new guy, it was all praises while she constantly complained about the other employees. Then he got promoted. Now it’s constant freak outs, insults, put downs, etc. with juuuuust enough “I’m sorry, here’s a present!” for her to feel OK with her behavior, I guess. And the new new guy is now the golden child, like friend was when he was new.

There’s tons of evidence that she’s basically a narc who gets away with it because she is charming and has no qualms about crawling up someone’s ass to get things done. She flips out on lots of people regularly and the ones who don’t report to her respond like she’s a child, gently setting boundaries and rolling their eyes when she leaves. His ex-coworker complained about her before leaving, but as usual nothing happened. She also lies regularly; whenever she gets pissed off, half the things she says are obviously untrue. It’s a classic narcissistic meltdown where she says extremely crazy and harsh things and then pretends 30 minutes later like nothing happened.

My question (on his behalf) is basically how to stay motivated to do your job well (i.e., not tank any of his professional relationships) while job searching. He’s been putting out a lot of resumes without any hits, and I don’t know if it’s the economy or his job hunt strategy but I’d like to be able to give him better advice than what I have right now (“leave”). His wife makes enough money to support them both if the boss blew her lid, but not enough for him to leave voluntarily without concerns. I think his main worry is getting demoted and still having to work there; it would just be humiliating and demotivating. He makes good money but not incredible money and is frankly OK with a pay cut as long as the new job suits him more. He doesn’t really care about staying in his industry.

Have you been in this situation? How did you stay afloat? Are there any good job hunting tips you have for this type of situation? I am a pretty good job hunter but my advice doesn’t seem to really help much, probably because we have very different career scenarios and personalities. I really think the only solution in these situations is to cut and run but I understand that finding something new is not always so easy. I’ve read some online advice that boils down to “narcissists can be very good at their jobs, but are also a nightmare to work with,” which is basically the situation but doesn’t help much.

Though I’m asking for him, I’m also curious for myself how other people handle these things. He and I have both come from backgrounds of emotional abuse (that’s how we met) and I realized I haven’t dealt with a situation like this since I started healing from that. (I also don’t want to “caretake” him but want to know what is a healthy response.) Thanks!
posted by stoneandstar to Work & Money (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: My thought is a different kind of journal - document for himself his successes and positive interactions. It is easy to lose sight of the good stuff when there is so much de-motivating stuff going on. A regular practice, maybe at bedtime, of reminding himself what he did well and the positive behaviors from other people. There is research about the value of keeping a gratitude journal - I think there is much to be said for documenting not only the positive things that happened to him in the day but also the things that he can be grateful to himself for - job well done, self-care activities, job search efforts.
posted by metahawk at 10:38 PM on January 7, 2021 [4 favorites]


Best answer: The thing that you don't want to do is spend a lot of time thinking that anything that happens at work necessarily reflects on your worth as a person. And that's hard! You spend all day at work and huge chunks of our upbringing and society tell us that our worth is directly tied to our jobs. Even when something that clearly *doesn't* reflect on us personally causes us problems at work, that can be hard to take - people get laid off for reasons that have nothing to do with job performance all the time, and they *still* feel a hit to their self-esteem because of it.

When work problems are coming from interpersonal stuff, especially with bosses, it's even harder to not take it personally (because, you know: people!). But if you can see a shitty boss (whether narcissistic or whatever) as being no different than any other kind of shitty work situation, I think that makes it easier. To use a random example: imagine you work on a deep-sea fishing boat. There are a lot of inherently dangerous and uncomfortable things about fishing. But you can reduce and minimize these things, or lessen their impact on you. That might mean wearing really good gear to keep you dry and warm when you're on deck; wearing safety gear like a life vest and safety harness; getting as much rest as you can so that you're not working tired. The ways you protect yourself from a shitty boss/coworker are different from the ways you protect yourself from bad weather and the sea, but there are ways!

So ideally, I guess your friend can try looking at his boss and her moods the way he would look at the weather if he were a fisherman: you can't control it, you have to monitor it, you make decisions about what to do based on your predictions about it, and sometimes you do your best but you get wet and cold and have to run the bilge pump for hours anyways.
posted by mskyle at 3:49 AM on January 8, 2021 [10 favorites]


I loved my job and what I did. I didn't love my narcissistic boss. I dug my heels in and put my head down and endured what I could until I couldn't any more. I handwrote a sign that I put next to my door so I saw it nearly every time I left for work, and every time I came home from work. It simply said, "You are better than that." It was a mantra that mattered to me so much.

I finally took a deep breath and left for another position. Yes, it paid less, but I was back to feeling like a human being again. That was priceless.
posted by HeyAllie at 6:08 AM on January 8, 2021 [2 favorites]


Best answer: I found sources of professional validation that weren't That Awful Boss.

It didn't fix everything -- far from it -- but it kept me more or less afloat.
posted by humbug at 6:51 AM on January 8, 2021 [1 favorite]


Best answer: The professionals he works with praise him regularly. It’s like his manager (who is not a professional) is jealous. When he was the new guy, it was all praises while she constantly complained about the other employees. Then he got promoted. Now it’s constant freak outs, insults, put downs, etc. with juuuuust enough “I’m sorry, here’s a present!” for her to feel OK with her behavior, I guess. And the new new guy is now the golden child, like friend was when he was new.

This is not an appropriate professional dynamic at all, from start to finish, and from all sides. Obviously insults and put-downs are crossing a very bright line and that puts Boss in a different class of inappropriate than Friend. But Friend also seems inappropriately invested in being Boss's favorite, getting Boss's praise, and having Boss complain to Friend about - or at least recognize Friend as being better than - all the other employees.

Step 1: Friend needs to document Boss's insults and put-downs directed at Friend or at anyone else. Also document Boss's freak-outs but only if the freak-out had real consequences for Friend or other employees or the company (in other words, a private meltdown in Boss's office is nobody's business and should not be documented). Date, time, circumstances, and exact words when possible. Just a short entry each time.

Step 2: Friend needs to emotionally disentangle themselves from Boss. Friend needs to stop thinking about Boss in such personal terms - seeking praise, seeking to be the chosen one, labeling Boss as a narcissist when rejected, etc. Friend needs to learn how to be a "grey rock" to Boss. Friend might wish to seek therapy to explore and deconstruct their emotional entanglement with Boss.

Step 3: Friend needs to read a book or take a course or ask a career coach to learn what professional relationships look like, what appropriate professional feedback looks like, what appropriate workplace communication looks like. Friend cannot achieve what Friend cannot even envision. Friend can then seek feedback from Boss in work-appropriate ways, such as annual reviews.

Step 4: Friend needs to document professional successes in a separate journal and gather testimonials from all of the other professionals who have praised Friend's work. This will not only help Friend have something concrete to look at when they are feeling attacked by Boss, but will also be an excellent resource from which to enhance their resume as they look for new jobs.

Step 5: Once Friend lands new job, Friend can share the document from Step 1 in the exit interview with HR. This is assuming the document in Step 1 is not simply a mirror of Friend's weirdly personal emotional entanglement with Boss but indeed rises to the level of needing to be shared with HR. The work Friend has done in Step 2 and Step 3 will help Friend determine whether it does.
posted by MiraK at 7:15 AM on January 8, 2021 [3 favorites]


Best answer: When I'm in a situation like that, that is both difficult but not permanent, it helps me to think that I'm just collecting stories. The worse my boss' behavior, the better the eventual anecdote. I recommend your friend picture himself at a party in five years telling his friends about this boss while they all laugh in shock and horror.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:38 AM on January 8, 2021


Response by poster: But Friend also seems inappropriately invested in being Boss's favorite, getting Boss's praise, and having Boss complain to Friend about - or at least recognize Friend as being better than - all the other employees.

Thank you for the good advice, but this is not true at all. I remember him at the time specifically saying “Why would I want this type of praise? Especially from someone I can’t respect?” Plus, the coworker she was constantly trashing was also his friend. She just trashes people so far and wide you really can’t escape the blast radius.

Just to head off any further advice on that direction— this is more an instance of being a captive audience.
posted by stoneandstar at 9:07 AM on January 8, 2021 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: He has been pretty “keep your head down” this whole time, as the job came when he really needed one.

I think the biggest issue is how to stay motivated when you know that by sticking your neck out an axe is ready to come down on it. I don’t think it’s fully possible but there’s been some good advice so far, thank you!
posted by stoneandstar at 9:14 AM on January 8, 2021


Best answer: I stay motivated to the full extent that I will be evaluated on my performance review and no more. Does your friend know specifically what tasks or projects or other metrics they will be evaluated on and how by this person?

In my case, if my (probably somewhat narcissistic in tendencies) former manager was ever unfair or critical about work that I wasn't been evaluated on (which was often) I just shrugged it off, because it didn't come back to me on my performance review. Since my job is evaluated based on goals and project milestones, unless my new manager actively sabotages me, I aim toward meeting those goals, period. I'm not ranked on them, so if they are finished to my client's satisfaction by my milestone then that's all that matters.

It may even help to ask directly how they are being officially evaluated (in detail) on every task that they are being berated for just so that the manager loses that power of "unknown consequences" that narcissists love to abuse.
posted by Young Kullervo at 10:34 AM on January 8, 2021 [2 favorites]


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