I was a young college graduate and had enthusiastically accepted my first full-time job in a state thousands of miles away. I worked tirelessly to be successful and make a good impression on my boss.

In less than a year, though, I was unmotivated, disengaged and generally miserable at work. My misery was the result of a toxic workplace perpetuated by abusive and narcissistic leaders.

I was not the only victim of my boss; the entire department suffered from her destructive ways. Consider the day of a large dive meet. As a diver climbed the ladder to the 3-meter board, he lost his footing and fell.

Luckily, Don, the aquatics coordinator, was nearby and immediately stabilized the diver’s spine. From his knees on the pool deck, he seamlessly directed the lifeguards and managed the situation until EMS arrived.

The following day at a department meeting, Rick complimented him saying, “Don did an excellent job yesterday managing the emergency situation with the fallen diver.” While most staff members recognized Don’s efforts, our immediate supervisor did not.

After the meeting, as all 20 of us were leaving the room and walking past Rick’s office, it was impossible not to hear our boss’ words: “It was inappropriate for you to compliment Don! Do not ever tell Don he did a good job again!” While this is just one small incident among countless, it is an accurate illustration of the constant degradation and lack of credit we experienced on a daily basis. 

I finally concluded, for my own sanity and the health of the department, that I needed to approach the higher-ups to try to rectify the situation. It was evident that I could not approach the department director because he was involved in a well-known amorous relationship with my boss (which might explain how the situation came to be so bad to begin with).

The next level was the division head. I was surprised to find him also unreceptive. He even admitted that my boss’ intimate relationship with the director had plagued the department since the director had been hired six years earlier. He also disclosed that many other people — including all of my boss’ full-time subordinates over the past 15 years — had complained about her behavior, but he had chosen not to address the problem.

Unfortunately, my boss and the director were narcissists and, as research shows, narcissistic bosses are excellent at flattery and managing up the chain. She had convinced the administration her subordinates — all of whom had experiences similar to mine — were the problem and she was innocent.

My narcissistic boss drained my enthusiasm and sapped my self-esteem. But in the end, I was able to use this experience to be a better manager.