It’s well documented that when a narcissist is in leadership, organizations are less ethical, less collaborative and do not perform as well. But how exactly do narcissists create this in an organization? The authors of a new paper suggest they do it by “infecting” their corporate cultures, and that infection rages on even after the narcissist leaves.
If you’ve ever had a narcissistic boss, you’ve seen some of the behaviors they employ to get ahead. For instance, narcissistic leaders are paid more than other leaders. The study authors believe that this occurs because narcissists are experts at stealing credit for the work done by others or by their employees. On the other hand, if something goes wrong narcissistic leaders shift the blame and refuse to take responsibility. If you work for a narcissist, you will only get credit for what goes wrong, especially if it’s not your fault at all.
Narcissists believe they know better than others, which means they don’t listen to their own teams or to experts for that matter. And they are known for explosive anger at anything they see as disagreement or disloyalty.
But one of the most problematic behaviors for organizations is the way that narcissistic leaders are quick to hold others to rules, they feel they are above them. And often they are correct: narcissists who have risen to power have had a lifetime to perfect a strategy of intimidation. People who try to hold narcissistic leaders to appropriate standards quickly learn that they will pay for it. Narcissists believe the rules don’t apply to them, and they make sure of it.
Leaders like this have managed to create a myth around themselves. Consider leaders like Elon Musk of Tesla or Steve Jobs of Apple. Perhaps innovators have to be a little bit narcissistic? The answer is a definite no, says co-author Berkeley Haas Prof. Jennifer Chatman in a press release. “You can have confidence and be innovative, and not be self-involved, exploitative of others, overconfident, and risk-insensitive,” she says. “Bill Gates is a perfect countervailing example. But somehow, the lay public, especially in the U.S., has developed a view that leaders are supposed to be loud-talking and overconfident.”
Of course, narcissists don’t always get ahead. Another recent paper shows that being a jerk doesn’t actually help you get ahead. But when a narcissist does get ahead, the impact on their organization is profoundly negative both while they are in place and for quite some time after they leave. Narcissistic leaders are less collaborative and ethical, but more importantly, so are the organizations they lead. Such organizations suffer notably lower employee morale and performance.
Narcissistic leaders infect their corporate cultures
In their paper, “When ‘Me’ Trumps ‘We’: Narcissistic Leaders and the Cultures they Create,” in-press and published online by The Academy of Management Discoveries, Chatman and her colleagues propose a mechanism for the way that narcissists impact the organizations they lead.
“Narcissistic leaders affect the core elements of organizations and their impact on society,” says Chatman. “Companies organize because they can do something together that no individual could accomplish alone. When narcissistic leaders undermine collaboration, they by definition reduce the effectiveness of an organization. Without integrity, an organization risks its very survival.”
The researchers posit that narcissistic leaders are like a virus: they infect their organizational cultures. “Narcissists don’t create narcissists,” Chatman says. “It’s not about doing what the leader does. It’s about the leader creating a culture that induces people to act less ethically and less collaboratively than they would otherwise, whether they’re narcissists or not.”
A lot of it is about policies and practices, which the narcissists create, or fail to create. “They often choose not to put in place strong policies governing ethical behavior, conflicts of interest, and pay equity between men and women, as well as practices that promote teamwork and encourage people to treat others with civility and respect,” Chatman explains. “On the flip side, they also frequently fail to sanction employees when they violate these shared norms. In effect, people get rewarded for less ethical, less collaborative behaviors.”
These sorts of actions damage organizations in the long term. One of the great strengths of an organization is its ability to generate group accomplishments, but that does not happen when people can’t collaborate. Leaders who undermine collaboration and take credit for what their employees do kill those employees’ self-confidence. Morale drops and employees find they are not learning or growing in their roles.
It’s not so much what leaders do that drives employee behavior, it’s the cultures they create. “Organizational culture outlasts any leader,” says Chatman. “Even after a leader is gone, the culture that has been cultivated has a life of its own.”
How to deal with narcissistic leaders
If the health and success of an organization depends on avoiding narcissists at the top, it makes sense to avoid hiring them in the first place. Chatman proposes that hiring managers as the hard questions of references that might elicit narcissistic behaviors, although she acknowledges that narcissists will attempt to give only the references who will sing their praises.
Since many narcissists know how to play nice until they reach a top position, Chatman urges board members to restrain them. She advises 360 degree evaluations so that it becomes clear what it’s like to work for them. And in her most brilliant proposal, Chatman advises that organizations base a large amount of compensation and evaluation of a leader on the development of their people.
Once such a leader is in power, Chatman argues that the only way to save an organization is to remove them. But that’s only when the real work begins. Repairing a damaged culture and deflated employees takes time.
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