The toxic effect of a narcissistic leader

Apr 09 2010 by Brian Amble Print This Article

They're arrogant, have grandiose visions about their own importance, believe they are special and have unique gifts that others do not, have a sense of entitlement, are exploitive and lack empathy.

If this sound like somebody you work with - or even like your boss- you won't need to be told that people with narcissistic personalities can be a real handful in the workplace because they believe they are better than others.

But the key question is the effect narcissistic leaders have on an organisation. Do they have any positive attributes, or do they always do more harm than good?

That's what organizational psychologist Kathy Schnure has set out to answer in new research that compared ratings of leadership potential for those who have high levels of narcissism to those who show low-to-average levels on the 'narcissism scale'.

She will be presenting her findings at the 25th annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology April 8-10 in Atlanta GA.

She found those displaying strong narcissistic tendencies - things like exploitation/entitlement, leadership/authority, superiority/arrogance, and self-absorption/self admiration - had a significantly higher rating of potential leadership abilities than those with low-to-average scores.

"Those results would indicate the vision, confidence and pride in their own accomplishments could presumably translate into effective leadership in an organization or team," Schnure said.

On the other hand, while narcissists do gain leadership roles, often based on their charisma and ability to persuade others to accept their point of view, some of the underlying traits, or "dark sides" will eventually surface, preventing any "good" leadership," she added.

According to Timothy Judge, an organizational psychologist at the University of Florida, a primae example of this "dark side" is an overblown sense of self-worth.

"Narcissists are intensely competitive, self-centered, exploitive and exhibitionistic. They tend to surround themselves with supplicants they see as inferior. When they are challenged or perceive competition, they often derogate and undermine anyone, even those closest to them, they perceive as threats (and unfortunately, they are vigilant in scanning for threats)," he explained.

In contrast, Schnure said, leaders who are charismatic are not necessarily narcissists. "Charismatic leaders are not exploitive; they do not trample others to get what they want. Rather they display empathy toward employees," she added.

So while narcissists do see the big picture and have a strong vision, they are not good at working with others and eventually they become detrimental to the organization.

"They make good figureheads, in part because of their ability to articulate goals and attract people to their way of thinking," Schnure explained.

"But in terms of day to day leadership, they can be toxic with subordinates. That becomes especially apparent after their employees get to know the way the narcissistic leader operates. The favorable first impressions they make are not sustainable over a period of time," she said.

What's more, as other research by Timothy Judge has found, narcissists rarely live up to their high opinions of themselves. They may believe that they are better at their jobs than others, but their colleagues and managers believe that they do an inferior job compared with other employees.

As Kathy Schnure points out, this is a compelling reason why hiring managers should be more aware of this personality trait. While initial appearances may be favorable, they need to do their due diligence before hiring a person with narcissistic tendencies.

"More organizations should attempt to assess narcissism pre-hire or pre-promotion to avoid them," Timothy Judge said. "It's fool's errand to think that narcissism can be corrected as a result of an organizational intervention.

"At best, organizations can try to contain and control a narcissist," he added. However, for hiring mangers it's a case of buyer beware because, as Judge points out, "no small amount of research suggests narcissism is a pretty toxic trait."