The corporate ecosystem teems with narcissists in leadership roles, putting businesses at risk and stressing employees. It’s been called an epidemic. Is there a cure?
Despite reams of academic research and a deluge of anecdotal reports that catalogue the harm done by narcissists, they are encouraged and sometimes even sought after in the workplace. Some of the attributes that define a narcissist practically read like a job advertisement.
“What company would not want a hard-working, ambitious, confident, charismatic and charming top performer?” asks Marie-Line Germain, professor of human resources and leadership at Western Carolina University and author of Narcissism at Work: Personality Disorders of Corporate Leaders.
In narcissists though, these seemingly positive qualities are accompanied by a suite of more obviously toxic ones. Not all narcissistic business leaders are as over-the-top and depraved as the financiers and moguls of the big screen. But even less-dramatic manifestations of narcissism can seriously damage companies and their employees.
Negative narcissistic traits such as grandiosity, constant need for approval and attention, lack of empathy, extreme risk-taking, failure to abide by ethical norms and rage when confronted with criticism or dissent, while rarely evidence of true narcissistic personality disorder, make for a stressful and unstable workplace.
Why narcissism thrives
It is probable that the roots of narcissistic behaviour lie in our early evolution as a species. “In alpha animals, you’ll see some of those traits. If you rise to the top, you’re the first one to get to eat,” explains Dr Cynthia Mathieu, professor of organisational behaviour at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and author of Dark Personalities in the Workplace.
“If you link that to the workplace, these individuals are often preferred in terms of promotion because they make grandiose promises and they show almost no signs of stress or anxiety.”
Narcissists are also often able to exploit ambiguous rules to their advantage and in the short term to the advantage of their employer as well.
Their self-aggrandisement may thus be rewarded due to the perception that these qualities make for natural leaders. This tendency has been amplified by the wider culture. Fawning profile pieces regale readers with tales of the remarkable personalities who have succeeded in business. In an ever-increasingly individualistic society, this has massive appeal.
Many wish to emulate the unique characteristics that account for extraordinary career success. This in turn creates a supercharged supply of the admiration that narcissists crave and further incentive for less-successful narcissists to pursue similar renown at all costs.
The downside of dynamism
While narcissistic inclinations may indeed help individuals succeed, and thus confer short-term success on the organisations that employ them, problems soon arise when they are promoted to positions of authority.
“One of these problems is highly risky decision-making,” notes Dr W. Keith Campbell, social psychologist at the University of Georgia and author of The New Science of Narcissism. “Companies with narcissistic CEOs tend to take bigger risks. The other problems are more interpersonal. Dishonesty, poor ethics, sexual assault and abuse are the most toxic examples in corporate settings.”
The histrionics and sexually predatory impulses of figures like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump almost certainly stem at least in part from deep-seated narcissism, for example. Narcissists also frequently lash out at subordinates, whom they view as inferior or as threats to their delusional self-concept.
Entrepreneur Joanne Woo witnessed the latter first-hand during her time as a catering and conference services manager at a hotel. “He seemed like a very bubbly person,” she recalls of her initial interview with the director of sales and marketing. “He put on a great façade.”
On the job, it was a different story. The director would sidetrack meetings with stories of his past achievements and regularly berated staff for perceived infractions. Woo finally confronted him when he publicly called her out for using Excel instead of Word to format a document. As it turned out, he simply didn’t understand the technology. Tantrums like the one he directed at Woo are typical of narcissists when attention is drawn to their failings.
Dealing with a narcissistic boss
Dealing with a narcissistic boss is almost always difficult. Experts advise scrupulously documenting any abusive behaviour and ensuring there are multiple witnesses in case disciplinary or legal action becomes necessary. Criticism of less problematic, but still undesirable, tendencies should be framed in a way that highlights the person’s strengths and the direct benefits they may reap by altering their behaviour.
Ideally, of course, organisations should work to exclude narcissists from being hired in the first place. “Add competencies that they are not likely to score high on, like humility, integrity, empathy and conscientiousness, to the selection process,” advises Mathieu. “If candidates do have behaviours that are contrary to your company’s positive values, they won’t be attracted. They don’t think these are actually leadership traits.”
Although many strong leadership traits may technically fall on the narcissistic spectrum, Mathieu urges employers to think in different terms.
“Some of these traits may be shared with narcissistic individuals. But it’s a completely different profile,” she says. “It’s the human trait that differentiates good leaders from bad leaders. You can have self-confidence and be extroverted, but at the same time be able to listen to others and have empathy towards others.”
In the meantime, those faced with narcissistic leadership may ultimately find they have no choice but to leave an organisation. Still, the experience can have it’s benefits. Woo didn’t learn much from her boss, but working under him taught her something about herself. “I know what kind of work I can do,” she says. “And I don’t need praise.”