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Narcissism appears to be on the rise among today’s business and entrepreneurial leaders, if you read the business pages and academic research on a regular basis. And this isn't always a bad thing: Narcissists can be compelling leaders capable of executing grand strategic visions.
Related: How to Work With a Narcissist
But all too often they are described as highly self-absorbed individuals who believe they are superior to those around them.
And while successful entrepreneurs tend to have high levels of self-confidence and an intense drive for success, often they'll fall prey to the problems associated with the darker aspects of narcissism: Specifically, they take unnecessary risks, hold too tightly to their vision when change is needed and fail to recognize the work and sacrifices of those around them.
In our new study, which was published in May in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, my research partners and I sought to gain a better understanding of just how problematic narcissistic leaders are, and what they might do to lessen the negative outcomes. We surveyed 262 employees and their (262) direct supervising managers over a four-week period at a large Chinese technology company.
Overall, we found the harmful consequences of narcissistic leaders to be wide-ranging.
Just how harmful is a harmful narcissistic leader?
We began by asking leaders at the tech company we targeted to complete a widely used Narcissistic Personality Inventory test. Employees, meanwhile, were asked to report on their organization-based self-esteem, meaning the degree to which they felt they belonged in their organization.
As researchers we were operating on the understanding that the need to belong is a fundamental human need and motivator, but that narcissistic leaders fail to satisfy this need among their employees because of their high levels of self-concern.
Those high levels mean leaders like these ignore the feelings of others. Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, for example, was often described as highly self-absorbed and inconsiderate of others. She was often criticized for being habitually late to meetings and dismissive of her constituents’ ideas and suggestions.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, is also said to be highly abrasive, and to tend to berate employees who fail to live up to his impossibly high standards. One former engineer at the company referred to critical interactions with the SpaceX CEO as an “Elon ass-kicking” and said some employees felt “crushed under the weight” of those interactions. Not surprisingly, both Musk and Mayer have been recognized as some of the most narcissistic CEOs in the tech industry.
Our study found that 51 percent of employees with narcissistic leaders disagreed or strongly disagreed with statements asking if they felt valuable in the workplace. Moreover, this diminished sense of belonging had wide-ranging consequences on these employees' behavior. Specifically:
- 34 percent of employees surveyed disagreed or strongly disagreed with statements asking if they helped other group members with their responsibilities
- 31 percent of employees disagreed or strongly disagreed with statements asking if they spoke up to their leader about their own improvement-oriented suggestions
- 37 percent of employees agreed or strongly agreed with statements asking if they badmouthed their leader to their coworkers
- 18 percent of employees agreed or strongly agreed with statements asking if they intentionally tried to disrupt task completion by ignoring their leader’s requests
Such behaviors are troublesome enough for established companies, but for startups -- whose survival depends on quick action and cooperation from all employees -- the consequences can be dire.
How can narcissistic leaders avoid the pitfalls of their personalities?
We asked employees to report whether their leader consulted with them before making decisions. While this kind of consultation is an influence tactic leaders use to gain employee support, it can also signal to employees that their contributions are valued.
We found that among narcissistic leaders, 27 percent frequently consulted with employees while another 43 percent consulted with employees to some extent.
Importantly, we found that when narcissistic leaders consulted with employees, the detrimental outcomes stemming from such leadership were not simply reduced, but eliminated completely. Here are three takeaways:
Active listening means that you concentrate on the message being communicated; you don't just passively "receive" the message. Unfortunately, most narcissistic leaders have difficulty focusing on what others are saying and often ignore their advice.
One classic example of a narcissistic leader who altered his behavior to more attentively listen to others was Steve Jobs. Much of Jobs’ success upon returning to the helm at Apple in 1997 was attributed to the drastic change in his interpersonal behavior from his prior tenure in 1985.
Not only was he more willing to listen to his employees, but he was described as someone who “seemed to relish other people’s ideas.” Our research indicated that employees are likely to discount their narcissistic leaders’ more abrasive qualities when those leaders take the time to actively listen to their suggestions.
Don’t just listen. Invite employees’ involvement in the making and development of decisions. Our study demonstrated that when narcissistic leaders invite employees to participate in leadership processes, those employees experience a sense of ownership in the process that can help alleviate the leader’s more harmful tendencies.
In particular, such behavior signals to employees that their narcissistic leader is not only willing to listen when they, the employees, have concerns or suggestions, but actually desire to receive those employee contributions.
According to Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, the best leaders “make a religion out of being accessible.” Likewise, our research emphasized the importance of narcissistic leaders making themselves accessible to individual employees.
Despite his narcissism, Welch often sent personal notes to his executives and met one-on-one with employees at all levels. Such behaviors were part of the programs Welch instituted to enhance employees’“feelings of ownership and self-worth” in the GE culture. We found that the individual attention employees receive when they're consulted provides the interpersonal interaction they crave, but rarely receive, from their narcissistic leader.
Due to the dynamic environment of the typical entrepreneurial venture, communication and cooperation from employees is a necessity for continued growth and survival. Although entrepreneurial leaders may be more narcissistic than their counterparts in non-entrepreneurial vocations, the pitfalls associated with their tendencies may be avoidable.
The key is for such leaders to understand how their narcissism is affecting others and actively work to adjust and adapt their behavior.