Saturday, April 6, 2024

Struggling with a narcissistic boss

Read Time: 4 minutes

Arianna O’Dell used references from an earlier version of this story in her piece on narcissism that appeared in Fast Company.

At twenty-one, I had yet to finish my final year at the Burnley School of Professional Art when I got a job at Boeing. I was hired to be one of a small group of designers and illustrators who created sales and marketing material for Boeing’s Turbine Division.

I was newly married and proud to be launched into my new life as a grownup. Finally, I was making my own way in the world, separate from my adoptive family. I’d escaped.

At Boeing, our little creative group—I think there were six or seven of us—created presentations and other materials that were used by management to promote the sale of the division. Apparently, Boeing corporate intended to divest itself of the whole division.

My boss, Pete, spent most of his time promoting himself to those senior to him. I can still picture him, feet on his desk, tie loosened, bragging about his accomplishments and connections with senior Boeing management.

I loved working side by side with other creatives and seeing my skills being appreciated by my coworkers.

Every morning, I put on my suit, perfectly fitted by a Hong Kong tailor, and drove my almost new Thunderbird past the company guard and through the gate with the special pass that gave us access to VIP parking. Our little group was considered essential management support.

Pete made it known, almost daily, that our special status depended entirely on his esteemed position in the eyes of the division general manager and Boeing corporate management above.

We worked lots of nights and weekends, pumping out a continuous chain of management presentations to potential buyers. Pete was critical and demanding, and as time went on, I realized that his attacks were personal and would leave me and others in the group feeling terrible after almost every interaction.

I quickly learned that every conversation with Pete alternated between proclamations about how wonderful he was or put-downs of me or others in the group.

It was clear Pete would do anything to advance himself. He could be vicious if he thought you were getting in his way.

Realizing that our work was all about selling the division, I asked Pete what would happen to us once our division was sold. He said something like, “Oh, we’ll be absorbed into one of the internal creative groups within the company. I’ll make sure that happens.”

Avoidance became my daily strategy. When he was present, I’d keep my head down and appear lost in my work. This was nothing new to me. That’s how I managed my relationship with my adoptive father growing up.

At some point in this little drama dance, Pete discovered that our division manager was a WWI bi-plane enthusiast. Remembering that I had an illustration of a biplane in my portfolio, he asked permission to show it to the division manager.

Naive and proud that my work had caught his eye, I happily handed Pete the illustration, which he tucked under his arm with a smile, and went off to the boss’s office.

That afternoon, I asked Pete what happened, and he said that the boss was out, and he’d left my work with his executive assistant. I worried a bit but put it aside.

I asked again several times but was afraid to challenge Pete’s authority. The thought of going directly to the GM occurred to me but seemed impossible. So I boiled inside and waited.

Then, one day, Pete handed me an oversized envelope with a smile and asked me to look inside. I opened it and pulled out a photographic copy of my work.

My worst fear was now confirmed. He’d given my illustration to the GM to enhance his personal standing. I’d never get it back.

Pete told me that giving my illustration to the general manager had enhanced our position with him. Given that our future employment hung on their goodwill, we needed every bit of appreciation and support from the ‘brass’ we could get.

I was heartbroken. The illustration had taken me weeks to research and paint. I was incredibly proud of it and considered it a core part of my portfolio.

Afraid of Pete, afraid of the GM, afraid of the hierarchy of Boeing, I did nothing.

A few weeks later, it was review time, and I had to sit down with Pete to discuss my performance. He gave me a very low rating, and I still hear him saying, “I wasn’t a team player.”

I called in sick the following day and spent the time making appointments with local agencies and designers. Within a week or two, I had a new job and left the company.

A year later, some of my Boeing colleagues visited me. The division had sold to Caterpillar, and they had all been let go—all but Pete. Narcissist to the core, he’d landed a senior position within one of the larger Boeing in-house creative groups.


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