How much should alter our own behavior to not be poisoned?

In chapter 2 of The Young Professional’s Survival Guide, titled “Toxic Bosses and Colleagues,” C. K. Gunsalus references advice from Michael Maccoby’s article in the Harvard Business Review, “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons.”

It is my understanding, as C. K. Gunsalus has explained, the central thesis of Maccoby’s theory is that a narcissistic leader can be a good thing for a team, as they have desirable qualities of a leader (e.g., great vision, ability to attract followers). However, in order for this leader to not wreak havoc, this person has to be put in check allowing for the positive aspects this leader to outshine the negative impacts.

That makes sense, even as we consider our individual places in society. We should be constantly trying to illuminate our own positive qualities–not to say this is easy or readily achievable.

C. K. Gunsalus proceeds to say:

“[Maccoby’s] advice to people with such a boss: ‘Always empathize with your boss’s feelings, but don’t expect any empathy back; give your boss ideas, but always be prepared to let him take credit for them; hone your time management skills…disagree only when you can demonstrate he will benefit from a different point of view.”

My reaction: “ummmmmmm, can we say exhausting?”

In my opinion, reacting in such a way enables toxic behavior. That is an entirely one-sided relationship, a relationship we would hopefully be less willing to tolerate in our personal relationships.  I understand that work is work (i.e., not a place for personal relationships), and people have bills to pay–especially when the narcissistic boss determines whether one has the ability to pay one’s bills. However, most people spend more time at work during a work week than with those in their personal lives.The work load can be demanding enough on its own. Thus, it is important that healthy, non-toxic relationships are maintained at work.

The advice to “be prepared to look for another job if your boss tips over to unproductive or destructive narcissism,” does not seem like a solution. In lacks accountability. If I , my work, and my reliability are being supervised and evaluated–how is it beneficial for me to be more empathetic to my boss than my boss is to me? If I show up work late, perhaps due to a family problem, I will be held accountable. If my boss consistently shows up to work late, no questions asked.

What are your thoughts? How can we cultivate the positive qualities of narcissistic leaders and perhaps actually get them to be less narcissistic? Is it even possible? Should these types of people be leaders, despite their positive attributes?


Note: this is not me speaking from experience, I am fortunate enough to have amazing advisors with more empathy than I could have ever imagined. 


4 thoughts on “How much should alter our own behavior to not be poisoned?

  1. This post kind of describes why you are in graduate school. A lot of people are happy with just doing their 8 hours of work, handing a report to their boss, and going home. The majority of people are just in it to get a paycheck and don’t care who gets credit for what at the end of the day. Managerial structures are often going to lead to narcissism. I’ve worked in warehouses with people who go on an ego trip because they went from shipper to assistant shift manager or something else trivial and think they get to have a ton of power. The kind of bosses who are like the one’s described above are the one’s people are always going to whisper behind their back, and the ones who people are never going to defend if people ask about them. The best leaders to me are the one’s who only use their superior position when they need to, and spread credit to their team whenever possible.


  2. I would argue that Storme’s assertion that “this is why we are in grad school” and that “people are happy” and “don’t care who gets credit” lacks some basic psychology, and also places “grad school” and the jobs that people get post-grad school on a pedestal. I know many grad students who are unhappy and have difficult to work with bosses, PIs and mentors, who in some cases have cut them out of papers, stolen their ideas, or taken more credit than due. I agree with Storme that “managerial structures are often going to lead to narcissim” and would even say that there’s an argument to be made that academia, “grad school” and academic institutions in the US have a managerial structure that encourages narcissim- hello tenured professors. I know plenty of Engineers and Scientists who are professionals at companies who have problematic bosses, and they all have college degrees. I think it’s super dangerous to think that our institution, or our education level, could protect us from having a non-empathetic boss. Sorry to rip on you Storme.

    I do believe “the best leader’s …are those who only use their superior position when they need to, and spread credit to their team whenever possible,” and I’ve struggled with bosses in the past who do not adhere to this. My only suggestion of a solution that actually would try to get them to change their behavior is trying to communicate with them about your needs. To make the situation bearable for yourself, tell them you need a 30 minute lunch break, or you need a calendar with due dates and priorities marked, or your team needs to meet once a week in the conference room they monopolize. Make it seem like its less about you and the people and more about getting the goals achieved, ex ” in order to do Y task, the team needs to practice presenting, so we will need the conference room X days before the company bid so we can practice and sound professional day of”. This is the only tactic I have been able to use to get my needs met. I’d love to hear any of your tactics for dealing with difficult bosses.


  3. First of all, “you respect me, I respect you” – A wise (wo)man

    Second, as an adult, I should not have to teach another adult basic human decency. It is exhausting and significantly deleterious to the ‘victim’ in the situation. Giving credit is a concept everyone is taught in grade school. To take someone’s work as your own is a definite breach of trustworthiness and honesty. In the business world, however, it gets shunned over. Why? “Money, Money, Money, Money” -The O’Jays. People love money. And speaking to your article’s prompt of being okay with a boss STEALING your ideas is a promise of more money. Subordinate’s POV: “I have good ideas that get used so I’m sure they will promote me one day”. Boss’s POV: “In order to keep my job I need to push the best ideas of my employees”.

    In short, GIVE PEOPLE THEIR CREDIT. Yes, your boss can be busy and under stress running a team of people, but allowing them to feed off your work for their well-being is NOT okay. How do we stop it? Promote people that enrich work environments and not people who “get things done under any and all circumstance”. Because those are the type of people that exhibit the negative qualities explained in your post.


  4. I like your willingness to take this on!

    When dealing with difficult people, and when those people have authority, listening in such a way that a narcissistic person feels heard can perhaps lead them to see beyond themselves. Patience and trust with this type of person can open doors later that could help them out.

    The easy option is certainly to put up all boundaries, ignore them, or get out.

    But there is usually a reason a person is narcissistic and it could be for very sad reasons, some not their fault. Either way, I would want the world for even this most difficult people and if I could do as you say, help them become more aware of others, that would be a gift to them.

    So one idea is essentially to put up boundaries early on; take their advice and their thoughts with respect and act as you see fit, but have friends, family, and co-workers who remind you of your voice and value above this individual. Develop trust slowly; figure out what drives them and what they want. And then find ways to relate to them and moments where you can tell stories about yourself or others that might open their minds.

    For example, a couple of people come to mind who I interact with less because they are very self-centered. But slow friendship and respect bought their trust and gave me opportunities to tell stories from my life or the life of others that I hope showed them a world outside of their own.


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