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The Narcissist in the Corner Office
You know this boss; you've probably had this boss. He—or increasingly, she—is the boorish, bullying, arrogant, blame-laying, credit-grabbing monster who haunts your days. You're not alone. According to one 2007 study by the polling firm Zogby International, 37 percent of all workers in the U.S. have at some point been bullied on the job—or, a whopping 54 million people, when you calculate from a conservative estimate of the size of the workforce.

That's a massive epidemic, by any measure. And while clinical narcissists represent only about 2.35 percent of the overall population, they are overrepresented in corner offices.

The most delightful way to cope with this kind of narcissist is to find another job, slap your resignation letter on the little despot's desk and walk on out. But that's not always an option. So, for as long as you're stuck in a bad gig, remember these coping strategies:

  • If possible, always pitch the boss a new idea in a group setting, rather than to the boss alone. The more people who hear that the idea is yours, the harder it is to steal.

  • When the boss blames you for a problem that's actually his or her fault, resist the panicky impulse to pass that blame further along to a subordinate. This leads to what's known as a blame contagion that can cycle all the way down the organizational chart. Better to cop to anything that truly is your fault, explain the things that aren't—and do it all in a traceable, storable e-mail chain.

  • Don't stand for being bullied—verbally or physically (and yes, that happens). Document every single incident of abuse and report them all to human resources. If other people witnessed the incidents, ask them to back you up. And to the greatest degree possible, take none of this personally. The boss's narcissism really is about the boss—and that explains a lot about what motivates narcissists.

    In 2009, Nathaniel Fast, PhD, a professor of management and organizational behavior conducted a study of 410 people employed at various levels in various companies and found that aggression and abusive behavior come from a particular combination of authority and self-perceived competence. Repeatedly, he found, the most dangerous people are the ones with a lot of power but not as much confidence—which means they are deeply insecure about being found out. That makes them intolerant of any criticism or contradiction—and that, in turn, can lead to misbehavior when they feel threatened.

    Bosses are particularly susceptible to this lethal combination because their charisma and confidence means they interview well, but that also means they have a higher than average chance of getting hired for a job they may secretly know they're not qualified to perform. "Search committees can't get enough of these guys," says management expert Robert Hogan, of Hogan Assessment Systems. You, by contrast, will have more than enough of them very quickly.