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
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
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
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.