Even in today's data-rich world, most employees advance their careers based on what their direct line manager thinks and says of them, with subjective supervisory ratings being the main measure of people's performance, as opposed to some objective marker of their actual contribution to a team or organization relative to their peers.
"Narcissism is often mistaken as leadership potential."
As I argue in my latest book, "Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (and How to Fix It)," managing your boss is particularly difficult if they have narcissistic traits, with scientific research showing that narcissism levels have been on the rise in the past decades.
Narcissism is often mistaken as leadership potential. When people are overconfident, unaware of their limitations, and when they display grandiose and megalomaniac aspirations, they often come across as competitive, tough and leader-like, even in the absence of actual leadership talents.
How to tell if your boss is a narcissist
- They have a tendency to speak about themselves and rarely listen to other people's ideas. Even when someone is telling them something about something else, they respond with self-referential comments and often use the words "I", "me" and "my."
- They take credit for other people's work and blame others for their own mistakes. This ability to manage credit and blame enhances their status and reputation even in the absence of talent or hard work.
- They are less able to build meaningful and deep connections with others. This is why narcissistic individuals often excel in short-term interactions while being unable to sustain quality relations with others.
- They pay a great deal of attention to their look and appearance, to the point of seeming vane. This obsessional quest to maintain a positive self-image, however, is mostly aesthetic – for narcissists are less focused on coming across as polite and friendly.
- They are often offended and angry when their ideas or beliefs are questioned or criticized. This is why they have a tendency to retaliate or attack those who disagree with them, which they perceive as a threat. Ultimately, this shows that narcissists may have a high but fragile self-esteem, so they crave approval and respect from others.
How to manage a narcissistic boss
The key objective is not to improve or change them, but simply to make things easier for yourself.
- Praise them and validate their egos. Don't belittle or blame them, particularly in public.
- Make yourself useful to them, even to the point of allowing them to take credit for your work. However, make sure that they are aware of your value to the point of depending on you.
- Don't ever assume that they are genuinely interested in you or your success. If they are nice to you, read between the lines to infer what their ultimate motive might be.
- Be their public audience. However, you should not expect them to pay attention to what you are saying or understand what you are feeling. Give them the impression that it's about them, not you.
- If you are going to compete with them, don't make it obvious. Scheme behind the scenes so that they don't see you as a threat.
To be sure, in an ideal world this advice would be irrelevant because the majority of bosses would have leadership talent and get to where they are because of their interest in helping others perform well and their ability to motivate high-performing teams. This would also imply that those who are tasked with selecting leaders would generally filter out those with narcissistic tendencies. But since we live in the real world you may find this advice more useful than it should be.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup, a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, and an associate at Harvard's Entrepreneurial Finance Lab. He's the author of "Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It)." Follow him on Twitter @drtcp.
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