The Impact of Narcissistic Leaders

This article based on a new paper from Berkeley Haas School of Business Professor Jennifer Chatman explores the profound and long lasting impact that narcissistic leaders have on their organisations.

Narcissists ‘infect’ the culture of an organisation which can dramatically reduce collaboration and the integrity of staff and leaders. This destruction can last for a long time after the narcissist has left the building.

Chatman has experience in researching toxic leaders. They found that narcissistic leaders are often confused with charismatic or transformation leaders at the start. However as they continue in the organisation the darker side comes out and the exploitative and self absorbed aspects of their nature sets them apart.

Narcissistic leaders are often paid more than peers because they become very good at claiming credit for other peoples work. These personalities are often overconfident, dishonest, credit-stealing and blame-throwing. They believe they are superior to subordinates and don’t listen to experts. This style of leader is likely to explode into rage at any perception of disloyalty and can often create conflict. As Chatman says “they believe the rules simply don’t apply to them”.

“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.”

Paul J. Cortese Distinguished Professor of Management
Greater Good

How Narcissists Affect Organisation

Fish Rots From The Head

Organisational culture is a reflection of employee behaviour. While it may begin with mimicking leaders and creating a new tolerance for what becomes acceptable behaviour. That extends as narcissists do not tend to recognise ethical behaviour, ignore conflicts of interest. This see’s the new norm of people becoming rewarded for poor behaviours.

“You end up with these individualistic cultures with no teamwork and low integrity. We’ve documented this in a bunch of Silicon Valley tech firms.”

Charles A. O’Reilly
Monkey Mirror
Image Credit: Pexels

The damage lasts a long time. When teams stop collaborating effectively, it becomes harder to achieve successes. The career development, learning and growth begins to wither and morale sinks.

“Even after a leader is gone, the culture that has been cultivated has a life of its own.”

Jennifer Chatman, Ph.D.

Nauman et al. led research exploring how dark-side leadership affects the personal life of employees. They assessed the negative impacts of despotic leadership (i.e. authoritarian and dominant behavior in pursuit of self-interest, self-aggrandizement, and exploitation of others). The results show that negative forms of leadership can extend into personal lives, homes and families of employees.

How To Head Off Narcissistic Leadership

While the easiest answer is do not promote the narcissist leader. Once these leader have made their way to the top of an organisation it is very hard to remove them and requires significant commitment from the board.

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters. Okay. It’s like incredible!”

Donald J. Trump, President of the United States, in January 2016

Chatman suggest that one way to focus behaviours on company culture is to make is part of the leaders remuneration. By aligning the development of people and the organisation culture to variable compensation.

Key Takeaways

  • Narcissistic leaders can be difficult to spot initially and difficult to remove when they get into senior roles.
  • The damage a narcissistic leader can create in an organisation is likely to last a very long time.
How Narcissistic Leaders Make Organizations Less Ethical
By Mickey Butts
Published: 9th October 2020

and Business Horizons
How humble is your company culture? And, why does it matter?
Published: September 2018
By TiffanyMaldonado, DusyaVera, and NichelleRamos 

and Academy of Management Discoveries
When 'Me' Trumps 'We': Narcissistic Leaders and the Cultures They Create
By Charles A. O'Reilly (Stanford Graduate School of Business) and Bernadette Doerr

and Stanford Business Insights
How Narcissistic Leaders Destroy from Within
By Lee Simmons
Published: 30th April 2020

and Frontiers in Psychology
Fifty Shades of Grey: Exploring the Dark Sides of Leadership and Followership
By Susanne Braun, Ronit Kark, Barbara Wisse
Published: 5th October 2018

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