How To Deal with a Toxic, Narcissistic or Sociopathic Boss

Ray Williams
12 min readMar 25, 2024

Despite current research and widespread public opinion that emotionally intelligent, ethical and caring bosses are needed and wanted for our organizations, toxic and abusive bosses and even sociopaths are still common in our workplaces.

This article is an excerpt from my book, Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Ethical and Moral Leaders, with additional material.

According to research by a business management researcher, abusive and toxic bosses may retain their positions by taking superficial steps to repair their social images following outbursts without acting meaningfully to change their behaviors.

Abusive, toxic bosses who may also have Anti-Social Personality Disorders (ASPD), may retain their positions by taking superficial steps to repair their social images following outbursts, mistakes or failures, without actually meaningfully changing their behavior, according to several researchers.

ASDP can be described as a mental health condition that causes harmful behaviors without remorse. People suffering from this condition

  • Manipulate or deceive people.
  • Exploit or take advantage of someone else for their benefit.
  • Disregard the law or the rights of other people.
  • Feel no remorse for their actions.

A sociopath has ASPD, as does a psychopath. A sociopath is charming and charismatic initially, at least on the surface, but they generally find it difficult to understand other people’s feelings. They often:

  • Break the rules or laws
  • Behave aggressively or impulsively.
  • Feel little guilt for the harm they cause others.
  • Use manipulation, deceit, and controlling behavior.

Some psychologists and researchers, however, do make critical distinctions between sociopathy and psychopathy. However, these terms offer two slightly different ways of understanding the diagnosis of ASPD. In these interpretations, psychopathy is sometimes seen as involving more planned behavior. The behavior might not necessarily be violent, but it’s typically premeditated.

Some consider sociopathy to be slightly less severe than psychopathy since it doesn’t involve calculated manipulation or violence. But that isn’t necessarily true. Violent, deceitful, or impulsive actions can still cause plenty of damage and distress, whether planned or not.

Robert Hare, the psychologist who created the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), defined sociopathy as involving a conscience and sense of right and wrong or morality. But that sense of morality doesn’t align with cultural and social norms. Instead, people with sociopathy often justify actions they recognize as “wrong.” In a nutshell, people with sociopathy may have little empathy and a habit of rationalizing their actions. But they do know the difference between right and wrong. Psychopathy, according to Hare, involves no sense of morality or empathy.

Your toxic boss could also be suffering from a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Like other personality disorders, NPD occurs on a spectrum and involves a range of symptoms. The DSM-5 lists nine traits that help identify NPD, but only five are needed for diagnosis.

Common symptoms of NPD include:

  • grandiose fantasies and behavior, such as a preoccupation with thoughts of personal success, power, and attractiveness or sex appeal
  • little or no empathy for other people’s emotions or feelings
  • a significant need for attention, admiration, and recognition
  • an inflated sense of self-importance, such as a tendency to exaggerate personal talent or achievements
  • a belief in personal specialness and superiority
  • a sense of entitlement
  • a tendency to take advantage of others or exploit people for personal gain
  • arrogant or conceited behavior and attitudes
  • a tendency to envy others and believe others envy them

People with NPD often have trouble dealing with change. They may feel depressed or humiliated when they feel slighted, have a hard time with insecurity and vulnerability, and react angrily when others don’t seem to regard them with the admiration they need and feel they deserve.

The Impact of Toxic Bosses

Shawn McClean, an assistant professor in the University of Wyoming’s College of Business, joined colleagues from the University of Iowa, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Texas A&M University to conduct the research, which appears in the Personnel Psychology journal.

“Our study shows that supervisors are often driven by simply repairing their social image rather than making genuine amends and changing their behavior,” McClean says. “As a result, employees may seemingly forgive abusive supervisors who try to ‘fake nice’ after abusive behavior, thus reinforcing the cycle of abuse.”

The researchers found that rather than taking steps to genuinely repair damage caused by their abusive behavior, such as offering sincere apologies, many of the bosses were more concerned about repairing their social images. The bosses did small favors for employees with the express purpose of getting employees to view them more favorably while also engaging in self-promoting behaviors, such as highlighting how hard they work or showcasing past successes.

“Consequently, even though abusive bosses may appear on the surface to be considerate to their victims following one of their abusive episodes, the bosses in our study reported behavior that was instead a superficial attempt at impression management,” the researchers wrote, “as a result, toxic bosses were not likely to change their ways, mainly because their focus was on covering up their bad behavior through manipulative ingratiation and self-promotion behaviors, not on actually changing their toxic behaviors.”

The researchers suggest that breaking the cycle of self-centered, manipulative and uncivil behavior by bosses requires other organizational leaders to implement zero-tolerance policies for toxic supervisory behavior — and adhere to those policies, even when bosses appear to strive to make up for their bad behaviors.

Sanctions, rather than tolerance and forgiveness, are more likely to change their behaviors.

Strategies To Deal with a Toxic, Sociopathic or Narcissistic Boss

  1. Recognize the signs of leaders with Anti-Social Personality Disorders (ASPD). Sociopaths, malignant narcissists and psychopaths are very deceptive and manipulative and maintain control over their outward personas. They can lead what appear to be normal lives, sometimes throughout their lifetime. When psychopaths become criminals, they believe they are smarter than the average person and invincible. Sociopaths often let their inner rage surface with violent episodes, verbally and physically. They become reckless and spontaneous and have little control over their actions. Malignant narcissists are driven by the need to feed their egos to quell the down-deep feelings of inferiority and insecurity. Because they are impulse-driven, they rarely consider the consequences of their actions. It is difficult for sociopaths to live normal lives, and because of their imprudence, many of them drop out of school, can’t hold jobs, turn to crime, and end up in prison. Psychopaths have delusions of grandeur, lack remorse, empathy or guilt, have very shallow emotions and, like sociopaths, lack a sense of responsibility. Sociopaths lack empathy for others, have difficulty forming relationships, are manipulative and deceitful, and are impulsive and irresponsible. In the case of a narcissistic boss, they exaggerate their own IQ, success or looks, lack empathy, and have a sense of entitlement. All three of these personality types are highly manipulative and dishonest.
  2. Adjust Your Communication Style. This could involve several actions. For some, it means cutting off all contact or keeping it to a bare minimum. For others, it could mean continuing to talk to them but simply keeping your guard up. Limit the conversations to the specific business and do not have conversations about your personal life or other people.
  3. Avoid Giving Information about Your Personal Life. Keep all your important, confidential information close to you. Keep them from knowing anything that could be used against you. Don’t go too in-depth about your plans or long-term desires and wishes. Do not socialize with them.
  4. Refrain From Feeling or Being Indebted. If you get too invested in a leader who exhibits anti-social personality disorder (ASPD) behavior, it could be dangerous for you in the end. They often ask you to do favors normal people wouldn’t, sometimes putting you in risky situations where you’re unable to uphold your own moral beliefs. If you do find yourself falling in too deep, seek professional help. It might be your only way out.
  5. Don’t Believe Anything They Say That You Can’t Independently Corroborate. Operate with the understanding you can’t believe anything a corporate ASPD says. Because of this, continually gather information you’ll need to assess what’s going on. Be seen as a confidant within the organization. Ask open-ended questions, listen, and observe what’s actually happening.
  6. Minimize One-On-One Conversations and Avoid Decisions During Them. Suppose you’re working with a corporate APD. In that case, you can use one-on-one conversations to ask questions and engage in a harmless conversation that may help you better understand the individual, but avoid using one-on-one conversations as decision-making opportunities because you want witnesses for the decisions a corporate sociopath makes. Push decision-making to meetings where others are present and can corroborate decisions and direction-setting when they’ve inevitably changed or avoided later.
  7. Continually Improve Your Flexibility and Scenario Planning Skills. When corporate APDs try in some unanticipated way to disrupt efforts where you’re making progress, you want to be able to adapt and keep going as readily as possible. It’s critical to do the strategic thinking that allows you to always stay several steps ahead.
  8. Make Intelligent Trade-Offs to Keep the Corporate APD Placated and Occupied. If your boss is the offender, you can’t play the “avoid” and “small talk” cards all the time. Decipher what’s important and what isn’t to the organization — not to the corporate APD. With that insight, placate sociopaths on all minor things you can to ideally buy a little room for quiet defiance on things that really do count. If you’re in a position to do it, pair a lower-impact team member with the APD to provide attention and crank through the busy work APDs create. In exchange, offer strong support and counsel to the person assigned to this role.
  9. Identify and Develop Good Relationships with Others Who Understand and Share Your Perspective. Look for others who hint at frustration or exasperation with a corporate APD. Probe, without saying or revealing anything self-incriminating, and see where their loyalties are and what perspectives they’ll express. It may be someone you can work with more closely to get things accomplished. Again, be careful it’s someone you can ABSOLUTELY trust.
  10. Never Depend on a Corporate APD to do Real Work. Cover your bases by minimizing any dependencies on them completing tasks. If they own a task, figure out how to ensure someone else is backing them up, so that the APD can’t blame you for incompletion.
  11. Ensure Your Behavior Doesn’t Participate in or Support the ADP’s Toxic Behavior. APDs like to draw others into their unethical behavior, partly so they can allocate blame to someone else if they are caught or called to task.
  12. Don’t Think You Can Outsmart a Psychopath. As smart and experienced as you are or think you are, or convinced others have your back if there’s a conflict, remember that the psychopathic eats breakfast, lunch and dinner thinking about ways he can screw the organization and the people in it, and ways to avoid detection, blame or consequences. If the organization has whistle-blower policies and procedures, use them. Consider contacting legal authorities if the transgression is significant. Consult with a labor relations legal expert or lawyer to seek advice. Exercise extreme caution about casually discussing your suspicions with others.

Harvard University Psychologist and author of The Sociopath in The Office Next Door, Martha Stout, suggests the following strategies for dealing with a sociopathic leader.

  • Trust your instincts. Martha Stout’s research shows that statistically, the odds of dealing with a sociopath are higher than you may think. When a boss starts publicly castigating you (or others) for mistakes you didn’t actually make, take note. When joking becomes sarcastic, one or two individuals are perpetually targeted, or a boss maliciously plays team members against each other, there may be a deeper issue at play. Take notes, and proceed with caution.
  • Keep Records. Ask questions that clarify the behavior you suspect. A true ASPDDP generally operates one on one, and thrives on situations they can turn into a “he said/she said” scenario after the fact. To the extent you can document instructions and commitments in email (or even through recordings, if you are careful) you will be further ahead.
  • Call the person out and defend yourself (carefully). If you can do so calmly and without losing your temper, stop the meeting, stop the discussion, set a one-on-one appointment with the individual in question, and do whatever else is necessary to hold your ground and avoid becoming a pawn. This will send the message that you’re not a victim to be played or walked over.
  • Proceed with care — the effort to defend yourself could backfire if it makes you an even bigger target, or allows a mean-spirited boss to view you (or paint you) as disrespectful or uncooperative — but ultimately, you will be better off for having carefully defended the boundary that you are not willing to be treated unfairly or “played”.

(A footnote: This strategy does not work with a psychopath. You take an enormous risk in calling out or confronting the psychopath. It’s a contest you can’t win.)

  • Never, never trust that person again. Sociopaths are a breed of leopards that will not (and cannot) change their spots. They may be smooth and persuasive; they may promise you anything — but once a person like this has been unveiled, avoid at all costs any scenario that forces you to work with them again.
  • Leave. If the organization is unable or unwilling to deal with the situation, your only hope is to leave. This is a scenario that occurs with surprising frequency — it is hard for an organization to fathom that a single individual could be at the core of so much harm, or the company may fear the repercussions of firing a person whose propensity for sabotage is known to be strong. In any case, if the company is unwilling to deal with the individual directly, your most productive choice will likely be to leave.

Advice if You Are Dealing with a Leader with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NDP).

Attempts to change their behavior toward you, by standard methods such as telling them how their behavior makes you feel, will not work. In general, trying to change the behavior of narcissistic will primarily lead to frustration. It is best to accept that they were so damaged in their emotional development that they lack the ability to empathize and behave reasonably. Keeping this in mind will help you avoid taking their criticism personally or arguing with them about it. Disagreeing with their critical statements will only enrage them.

  • First and foremost, abandon the idea that you will be able to change the leader to become humble, honest and ethical. Even psychotherapists have limited success.
  • Avoid gossiping with other leaders or managers in the organization, borrowing from them, or lending to them. It makes you vulnerable.
  • Document, document, document. Narcissistic leaders like to both use verbal conversations and “code” language that can be vague or debatable. This allows the narcissist to deny agreements or responsibility and also “gaslight” others.
  • Be empathetic to a point, and don’t be sympathetic. The narcissist will see this a weakness and try to exploit it.
  • Do not confront the narcissistic leader in private or especially in front of others. They will exact revenge on you. If the behavior is serious enough to report it, do so to the leader’s superiors when you leave the organization. Even reporting it to the leader’s boss while you remain in the organization is a risk, because you don’t know the nature of the relationship between the narcissistic leader and his boss.
  • Go with the flow and be complimentary at first. Pay attention to the leader’s schema, or “mental model of aspects of the world or of the self that is structured in such a way as to facilitate the processes of cognition and perception”; again, they’ll usually pertain to one or more of the following themes: strength, intelligence, talent, social class, beauty, and/or money. Then, praise them for accomplishments in those areas where you feel comfortable (without encouraging superficiality or bad behavior).
  • Provide feedback but not criticism. This is a delicate balance. Narcissists will react negatively to any criticism and actually act vengefully. Be sure your language is specific and cites behavior that is being repeated over time.
  • Note the narcissist’s triggers which the leader could interpret as blows to their ego and avoid those triggers.
  • Maintain assertive personal boundaries. Trying to have a friendship or close relationship with a narcissist is not a good idea. Remember they can turn on you on a dime.

Finally, the best advice I can give if you are dealing with a boss who has a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is to get out of the organization as soon as you can.



Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others