Narcissistic Leaders Alienate Their Employees, Threaten Their Self-Esteem

Having a narcissistic leader can frustrate and demotivate employees, but can their demeaning and self-interested tendencies be controlled? A new study finds that narcissistic leaders can deviate from their trait tendencies to achieve their goals, challenging the idea that narcissists may be unable to regulate their behavior.

In, “Leader consultation mitigates the harmful effects of leader narcissism: A belongingness perspective,” Joel Carnevale, assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management, and Lei Huang (Auburn University), together with Peter Harms (University of Alabama), explore employees’ sense of belonging at work in relation to how they react to their narcissistic leader. The researchers found that having a narcissistic leader threatens employees’ sense of belonging, causing a wide-range of harmful consequences. The study found that employees were likely to react to the narcissistic leader by avoiding discretionary work behaviors, such as helping a co-worker, volunteering for a project or speaking up about a new idea. Employees were also found to express their frustrations with the leader discretely.

According to Professor Carnevale, “because narcissistic leaders tend to be highly sensitive and potentially hostile to criticism, employees may engage in negative behaviors in secret, such as bad-mouthing their leader to others or ignoring the leader’s requests and directives.” However, when a narcissistic leader involved employees in decisions or consulted with them in other ways, all of those harmful consequences were alleviated.

“It is often thought that narcissists can’t help themselves,” said Professor Carnevale. “But, our research demonstrates they can and often do present themselves in more socially acceptable ways to accomplish their own agenda, essentially regulating their perceived negative behavior.”

The study found that when narcissistic leaders used social influence in the form of consultative tactics that include employees in decisions and initiatives, the negative outcomes that result from the usual narcissistic behaviors were eliminated.

“Leader narcissism is frustrating and demotivating to employees,” said Professor Carnevale. “When employees are not happy, they are not productive, according to established management research. What our study sought to do was determine just how harmful narcissistic leaders can be to their employees and the overall organization, and whether there is anything that can be done to prevent that harm.”

Professor Carnevale believes organizations can mitigate the potentially negative consequences of leader narcissism by making sure leaders are trained to engage in more inclusive communication. “Our findings complement existing research showing that narcissists are somewhat aware of the harmful effects they have on others.” He cites prior research that indicates that though narcissists have difficulty accepting criticism, they may be receptive to training, if they think it will help them in some way.

The study is forthcoming in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.