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Narcissistic boss
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Difficult bosses: can neuroscience help?

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27th May 2015
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Jan Hills writes on neuroscience and how it can improve personal performance, team performance, organisational outcomes and leadership behaviour. She has had a varied career in HR, including over 10 years as a consultant and coach. Jan now runs Head Heart + Brain, a consultancy dedicated to brain-savvy HR and to improving all aspects of the organisation through the findings of neuroscience.

Difficult bosses are always a challenge but usually also a learning opportunity. A client of mine, who is highly intuitive but unstructured, complained about her team's difficulties with managing her style until she worked for an even more unstructured boss and suddenly understood the problems.

Difficult bosses come in many forms but maybe the most common is narcissist. This is a common trait in business. People with this character trait (as opposed to clinically diagnosed narcissism) tend to rise to the top of organisations, at least traditionally-lead ones.

Narcissism shows itself as a boss who is: self-centred, exaggerates their talents and abilities and lacks empathy for others. From the organisation's point of view they have many admirable characteristics. They tend to be: independent, visionary, innovative, driven to achieve, experts in their field, unafraid of asking tough questions and keen to know everything about a project.

They tend to take on leadership roles even if they are not appointed to them and others tend to feel ok about that.  They are particularly good at leading in a crisis or through transition. Given the amount of change most companies are going through it is no wonder there are so many senior leaders who display these traits.

'As a boss they also have a dark side.'

Yet they are also: driven by a need for power and glory, have a high need to be admired and are sensitive to criticism or 'constructive' feedback, take set-backs harder than most, believe they are smarter or more talented than most and hence like telling others how to do their job and seriously lack empathy. 

Potentially these bosses can change but first they need to be open and self-aware and what literature there is suggests this is tough for them to do. Freud said they are the most difficult people to engage in therapy.

So if you work for a narcissist what can you do?

Many narcissistic bosses develop a close relationship with a team member or subordinate, especially when they have a talent or skill which serves the interests of the boss. If you can get the boss to feel you are an extension of them, that you completely understand and buy-in to their vision and goals and can get the boss to see how your ideas further his or her vision and success, you can be very influential and safe!

Because of their wish to understand things, introducing the ideas about how the brain works can be useful. Understanding the brain's functioning is a way of people understanding themselves. It is a shorter step than other models and theories. Usually even the most closed boss recognises their own brain reactions and it is then easier to suggest others are experiencing the same. Once they get intrigued with understanding the brain they also begin to use the understanding to get more of what they want and, hopefully, achieve this in a way that is brain-savvy and works for you and your colleagues.

Introducing models like CORE can hook the boss and act as a lever you can use to gain a more empathetic approach.

Good luck! And remember narcissists thrive in change and difficulties - when things calm down they tend to be out of their comfort zone. 

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