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Office Politics: When Bosses Behave Badly

Hakim, Amy CooperPower may not always corrupt, but it sure can bring out the egomaniac in some managers. That’s what industrial and organizational psychologist Amy Cooper Hakim found while doing research to update her book (which was originally written by her grandmother), Working with Difficult People: Handling the Ten Types of Problem People Without Losing Your Mind.

Of the 10 kinds of bad bosses you might encounter (yes, there are that many!), she says that narcissists are quite common. “Someone who is cold-blooded and ego-driven as a boss was probably like that as a subordinate, but it didn’t affect her manager, or for that matter, her colleagues, the way it now affects her direct reports,” Hakim explains. “When used for good, power can achieve great things. But when used improperly by a narcissist, it leads to bullying, which spirals downward and hurts productivity and morale.”

Here’s how to identify and deal with narcissist bosses as well as two other common types who may be making you miserable at work (there can be overlap among them):


Identify them: They’re dismissive and discourteous and quick to blow up. While they have no problem insulting subordinates in front of others, they expect complete loyalty. When you’re the hire of this kind of boss, you tend to have a long honeymoon phase when you can do no wrong—that’s because a narcissist believes his choices are never wrong. Eventually, though, you’ll find yourself out of favor and in the hot seat.

Deal with them: “The main thing is to stand up for yourself and demand to be treated with respect,” Hakim says. “Bullies love to take advantage of meek and docile people.” They also tend to be bad communicators. So clarify and document everything he tells you to do, which then enables you to point out that you did exactly what he said or that he changed direction without telling you. And if he starts slinging insults? “Politely tell him that you will fix whatever is making him unhappy but he doesn’t need to call you names,” Hakim advises.  


Identify them: While narcissists can be caustic, this type tends to be nice but self-important. So when they take credit for your work—which is what’s infuriating about them—they don’t actually think they are stealing. They think your work is a result of their work, and so it is all theirs. Fame-claimers are very concerned about their reputation and like to drop names.

Deal with them: “First, take your emotion out of the situation,” Hakim recommends. “You should do this with any difficult work relationship, but it may be especially hard in this case.” She says to shift your focus from how you feel to what you want to get out of this person. In a nutshell, that’s your share of the credit. To get it, you’ll need to bring her around to thinking of you more as her ally than her subordinate. So “in team meetings and emails, always start out by uplifting her and thanking her for her help or insight that enabled you to accomplish something,” Hakim says. “Whatever it is, it should be legitimate and sincere.” If you’re successful, she’ll start returning the praise and recognition. If not, you’ll have documentation of your contributions.


Identify them: These are the naysayers in a crowd, the people who make comments under their breath. As bosses, they are patronizing and act as though they’re doing you a favor when giving you their time. They are smart, but lack confidence. That’s why no one knows better than them or can be as good. You’ll never receive a compliment from them that isn’t backhanded.

Deal with them: Unfortunately, you can’t really change or even soften this type. “The only thing you can do is change your reaction to their lack of tact,” Hakim says. “When they say something rude or hurtful, remind yourself that it’s not personal—this is just their way of protecting their ego.” In other words, don’t allow yourself to be drawn into their drama. Instead, put your energy into getting transferred or finding a new job.

Amy Cooper Hakim will be speaking at the 2017 Pennsylvania Conference for Women on October 3.

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