How a narcissistic leader infects company culture

Even the wax version appears vain.
Even the wax version appears vain.
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall
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Narcissists are attracted to power and know how to get it.

They have a deep and sometimes pathological need for admiration and status—in fact, they may feel entitled to it. Unfortunately, because they also exude confidence and have enormous faith in their own vision, narcissists can often talk their way up the chain at an organization and develop a loyal following.

As business leaders, however, narcissists often fail. They may act aggressively, but they make bad decisions, paying too much for an acquisition, for instance. Data show their grandiose plans do not boost a company’s performance. And they’re more likely to lead companies that are sued, according to previous research led by Jennifer Chatman, a professor of organizational management at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, who has studied narcissists in the upper echelons of management.

In a new study, published in Academy of Management Discoveries, Chatman and a team of researchers propose a new theory for understanding exactly how narcissistic leadership can damage a corporation. Self-aggrandizing personalities create an environment that places little value on teamwork or integrity, hobbling a company’s ability to be innovative, the authors suggest. Because culture is known to outlast a boss, they also warn that replacing a narcissistic CEO is no guarantee that a corrupted culture will bounce back.

Narcissists, in other words, “infect” a culture like a virus, they write, applying a timely metaphor. And just like viral invaders, their impact may be felt long after they’ve been exiled.

Although the study is focused on corporate culture, it’s titled “When ‘Me’ Trumps ‘We’: Narcissistic Leaders and the Cultures They Create”—no doubt a winking reference to “narcissist-in-chief” US president Donald Trump. 

How narcissists manage

Chatman and her coauthors—Charles O’Reilly, a professor of management at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Bernadette Doerr, a former graduate student at Berkeley Haas—developed this new framework after conducting a series of experiments that used standardized tests to identify subjects who scored highly in narcissistic traits. They then examined their preferred leadership styles for managing people and projects. Based on the results of their lab and field studies, the researchers theorized that narcissistic types influence culture through policies and practices they implement—and those they don’t.

Specifically, study subjects who leaned toward narcissism were less likely to endorse codes of conduct that emphasized behaving ethically, respecting others, and avoiding conflicts of interest, and more likely to value individual achievements over team successes. They are “willing to exploit others to benefit themselves,” Chatman says of narcissistic leaders. “They pull people into their vision without any intention of sharing the spotlight or benefits of the collective effort they instigate.”

Counterintuitively, they’re also inclined to hire people who are team players, the study found, possibly because they need employees who will not challenge their directives, the authors speculate. However, those who work for narcissistic bosses inevitably adopt the same norms.

“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,” Chatman explained in an interview about her work for Berkeley Haas’s website.

How to deal with narcissistic types

The best way to avoid appointing such a toxic leader is not to hire narcissists at all, Chatman said. According to the professor, companies should be using interview processes that help them detect people who aren’t interested in cooperating with others and sharing the spotlight. 

But that may not be enough. “Given the incidence of narcissism in very important leadership roles in the US and around the globe, I believe organizations should get more deliberate about screening for narcissism,” she tells Quartz.

One way to do that: Contact several people who have worked with the candidate in the past, but were not named as references by the applicant. “Finding out what the candidate’s true track record is in terms of developing people and giving them credit for accomplishments is essential. Narcissists will over-claim credit and are significantly less likely to help other people develop as leaders,” says Chatman.

Another suggestion: Give any proposed grand visions for the company’s future a reality check. “Check the assumptions, check the projections, check the investment required,” says Chatman. “All aspects of the plan should be subject to very rigorous analysis.”

“If you do proceed and suspect, mid-project, that a narcissist is leading the effort, it is critical to create intermediate benchmarks so that the narcissist is accountable along the way without wasting enormous resources,” she adds.

The political subtext

It’s hard to consider narcissism in 2020 without considering Trump, perhaps the world’s most obvious example of the trait.

The hallmarks of narcissism are so prominent in him—in his self-aggrandizing tweets, credit-stealing, inability to listen to experts, outright lying, sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, and more—that some high-profile US psychologists have ignored their profession’s rule against armchair diagnosis of public figures and flagged concerns that the former US president may have a narcissistic personality disorder.

In that light, the new study’s findings may also illuminate the inner workings of the White House during the Trump presidency, and resonate with employees of  The Trump Organization, past and present.

Let’s hope that the wider culture has not been hopelessly contaminated.