The surprising risk of working for a toxic boss

You probably don’t need a scientific study to tell you that working for a narcissistic boss can have negative effects on your performance and mental health. But that’s exactly what a new paper from the University of Manchester in the U.K. has determined—providing real evidence of what health experts (and pretty much anyone who’s ever had a job) have long suspected.

The new research found that people whose bosses display psychopathic and narcissistic traits not only feel more depressed, but they are also more likely to engage in undesirable behaviors at work—like being unproductive and acting rude themselves. The findings, which have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, were presented today at the British Psychology Association’s annual conference for occupational psychology in Liverpool.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers at Alliance Manchester Business School performed a series of three studies, including 1,200 people from a number of different countries and occupations. In each study, participants completed questionnaires regarding their psychological wellbeing, prevalence of workplace bullying, and their manager’s personality.

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Analysis showed that people working for managers with these “dark traits” (as they’re known in the psychology field) had lower job satisfaction and higher rates of depression. Incidents of counterproductive work behavior and workplace bullying were also higher under these types of managers.

The driving factor for these consequences seemed to be the way these bosses treated their employees. “Leaders high in dark traits can be bad news for organizations,” said lead researcher Abigail Phillips in a press release. “Those high in psychopathy and narcissism have a strong desire for power and often lack empathy. This toxic combination can result in these individuals taking advantage of others, taking credit for their work, being overly critical, and generally behaving aggressively.”

And their mean or manipulative actions can spill over, to more than just a person’s direct reports. “Workplace bullying is obviously unpleasant for the target but also creates a toxic working environment for all involved,” Phillips said. “In short, bad bosses—those high in psychopathy and narcissism—have unhappy and dissatisfied employees who seek to ‘get their own back’ on the company.”

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So what do you do if you find yourself reporting to one of these horrible head honchos? Psychologist Ben Dattner, PhD, a New York City-based executive coach and author of Credit and Blame at Work, has a few suggestions.

First, set your expectations reasonably, says Dattner, who was not involved in the new study. “You’re not going to get any sort of positive support or encouragement or reassurance from a narcissistic boss,” he says, “so make sure you’re getting that elsewhere—from people like family, friends, community mentors, and coaches.”

Then, try to frame the situation in a positive light. “Consider that perhaps, over the long sweep of your career, it will be beneficial to suffer through this job,” he says. (Think The Devil Wears Prada.) “It will be emotionally draining, but even bad bosses can be technically talented and knowledgeable, and you might learn something from the experience.”

Helping narcissistic people look good in front of others can help put you on their good side, says Dattner. You may be able to do that by serving as a calm and strategic counterbalance to your boss’s impulsivity and reactivity.

“If you can protect your boss from himself or herself and you don’t appear to pose a threat, they’ll come to value you—and you might get yourself to a better place,” he says.  (And yes, sometimes that might mean doing the work and sharing the credit.)

Dattner says it’s no surprise that the new study found a link between narcissistic bosses and toxic environments. After all, it’s not the first research to find that rude behavior at work is contagious. And if you’re feeling bullied by your boss, it’s a good idea to watch out for your own conduct at work, too.

“People who feel disenfranchised or exploited are much less likely to engage in positive behavior to be a good organizational citizen,” he says. “But don’t take the bait; don’t sink to their level. As tempting as it may be, acting on those feelings will hurt your own career and your future prospects.”

Instead, he says to acknowledge your emotions and make sure you have an outlet for them, and to channel your energy into something positive.

“Try to make yourself indispensable, to learn new skills and keep your network strong,” he says. “That will hopefully leave you open to alternatives—because the hardest thing when you’re dealing with a narcissist is feeling trapped.”

Still struggling? Luckily, this is a popular topic. Here are four more tips for dealing with a narcissistic boss, from psychotherapist Joseph Burgos, PhD. Good luck!

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