How Do You Know if You’re Interviewing with a Narcissist? And Why Does it Matter?

Narcissistic bosses and the accompanying toxic culture are among the top reasons why staff leave their companies.  Narcissistic personality traits are more common than a fully developed Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), but both define a person who has an unreasonably high sense of importance and need for admiration.  Here’s a frightening statistic: About 6% of the U.S. population, or roughly 20 million people, suffer from NPD according to the NIH, not counting those who haven’t been diagnosed or have a grandiose subtype such as overt aggression.

How Does It Feel to Work for a Narcissist?

Personal accounts from professionals across industries are heart-wrenching.   In the extreme, a team member feels manipulated, lied to, totally depleted of self-confidence and in short, unable to manage their way out of a paper bag, as one woman told me for my book, Involuntary Exit.  Subjected to milder but steady doses, team members feel off-center, confused, in a cycle of success and failure, isolated, targeted, emotionally drained, and obsessed with proving themselves.

Whatever I did was wrong, and he said so in front of the clients.  He took my credit. I was afraid to do anything….”  (Posted to an online forum.)

Detective Work

So how do you suss out one of these creatures when you’re interviewing for a job?

You may think it’s easy.  It’s the guy who talks through most of your interview and it’s all about him.  But it’s not that obvious.

Professional narcissists are charming.  They know how to feign interest in you.

They’re typically articulate and joke easily while they’re studying you to see how you relate to them:  will you be a groupie or too independent?  

They tend to slip in disparaging comments either about the person who had the role before you or someone else in the organization.  This is followed by over-the-top praise for what you’ll bring to the organization.  

They can be self-deprecating, waiting for you to say something like, “Oh, that can’t be true.  I’ve heard only great things about you.”

Often they’re vague or evasive about specifics regarding compensation, but give you the distinct impression that if they like you, they’ll make sure you get whatever you want.

If you’re meeting the “Narc” with a group of people, you may notice that no one else talks.  There may also be unified chuckles after he makes a joke that’s not funny.

They rarely appreciate sarcasm that doesn’t come from them.

Finally, you leave the interview with a strange, disconcerted feeling.  The conversation, when you play it back in your mind, didn’t seem natural in some way.  

You realize that you’re worried about emailing the perfect thank-you that will gain his approval and not knock you out of the running.  

If You Take The Job

If you ignore the red flags or believe you’ll be able to out-perform your boss’s pathology, here’s a roadmap for what could likely happen, depending on the severity of the case.  I give this to you not to be a downer but with the simple goal of reminding you:  there’s nothing wrong with you.  You’re probably trusting and you prize integrity.  But you’ve entered a strange new orbit, so be aware and alert.

You’ll be hailed as the best employee to be hired in a long time.  At major meetings, town halls, you name it, you’ll be adored and adulated in public.

Over time this will change.  You’ll come up against resistance to your ideas, things will take place behind your back, and if you’ve been making your goals, they’ll get more extreme and unrealistic.

You’ll try harder, you’ll be dressed down, you’ll be blamed for your staff’s incompetence or saying the wrong thing at a meeting, or (fill in the blank).  You’ll be told you have a bad attitude and you should never show frustration.  

You’ll be puzzled as to why things that were always so easy, like hiring new staff, getting your plans approved, agreeing on your incentive structure now take months and don’t get resolved.

You’ll start to complain to colleagues and “somehow” your boss finds out; you’re no longer loyal.

You watch as your boss falls in love with another new member of the organization who gets the same treatment you used to get when you were “fresh.”

Finally, it’s over.  You have an involuntary exit or you leave on your own, radically changed.

How to Survive Before You Leave

Here are a few practical things you can do if you’re faced with these challenges.

Pump up your finances, especially with that sign-on bonus you may have had when you were first adored.  Having a financial safety net is a vital stress reliever.

Guard and nurture your self-esteem by seeking honesty elsewhere.

Be deliberate about keeping up with your external network.  Attend those conferences and national meetings.  Join a networking group for professionals at your level.  Having outside voices-of-reason is critical.

Keep your resume and LinkedIn updated and connect with others in your field so you’re prepared to leave.

Take notice of the signs of progressive “disease” — when logic doesn’t support your boss’s actions – and keep a journal so you don’t “gaslight” yourself into thinking it isn’t real.

Avoid making your colleagues your confidantes.  They’re likely suffering as well and may think they can win favor by sharing information about you with the boss.

Write your resignation letter while you’re still feeling strong and share it with a close friend so they can remind you why and when you want to leave.   If necessary, make a pact with your friend to leave on a specific date.

If you’re on high-alert when you accept the job, negotiate severance (job protection) up front while you’re still the favored one.

Given the typical results-driven, high-pressure business environment, some narcissistic traits might be perceived as “positive.” According to the Harvard Business Review, narcissistic leaders can be risk-takers, visionaries, and ultra-creative thinkers. They’re magnets for professionals who want to push boundaries.  It just breaks down when it comes to people.  One repeated piece of advice from my research:  Leave the situation.  You’re not going to change them and it’s not your job to change them.  Better yet, say No to the role and move on.

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