How to Keep Narcissism From Turning Your Organization Toxic

An egotistical boss isn’t just about the boss—he or she can infect the whole organization. Smart hiring and evaluation processes, plus a strong board, can help.

Narcissistic leaders, you will be unsurprised to hear, are a bad thing. They lose sight of the big picture for the sake of self-dealing. They siphon credit from their colleagues and deflect criticism.

But worse than that, a new study shows, narcissistic leaders have a nasty habit of breeding toxicity in the organization. According to research published earlier this month in Academy of Management Discoveries  from business scholars at the University of California–Berkeley and Stanford University, narcissists tend to create work environments that are overall less collaborative and less ethical. “Narcissistic leaders, by virtue of their personality, are likely to prefer and create cultures that specifically undermine collaboration and blur ethical boundaries,” according to the study.

Narcissists create more narcissists.

To put it another way: Narcissists create more narcissists. The research showed that regardless of others’ own level of narcissism, they tend to follow an unethical leader and are “less likely to collaborate and adhere to high standards of integrity.”

That creates an organization defined by a lack of order. “Companies organize because they can do something together that no individual could accomplish alone,” says Jennifer Chatman, one of the paper’s coauthors, in a Berkeley release on the study. “When narcissistic leaders undermine collaboration, they by definition reduce the effectiveness of an organization. Without integrity, an organization risks its very survival.”

The tricky part is that narcissists don’t announce themselves as such—indeed, they’re often pretty savvy at making their self-interest hard to detect. According to the research, which included field studies of corporate CEOs, these leaders can project confidence early on. Confidence is unquestionably a good thing. It can take time for the negative side of that—unethical and exploitative behaviors—to come to the surface.

Those problems should be a little easier to see these days: As I wrote last year, research shows that younger employees now expect more vulnerability from leaders and are less likely to want to work with those who don’t have a team-friendly mindset. But Chatman and her colleagues note that organizations need to be more proactive about sussing out a leader’s narcissistic tendencies before they have time to fester.

One way to do that is to make sure search committees are savvy about a candidate’s references and contact people beyond the ones provided by the potential executive. And 360 evaluations can be a particularly effective tool for uncovering toxic behavior. But one of the most effective tools, the researchers found, is to connect a leader’s compensation to team performance, not just the exec’s. That effectively nudges the organization into creating a culture where credit is shared, keeping leaders from hoarding it for themselves.

The research also suggests that strong leadership from the board can be meaningful as well. Leaders who know they’ll be held accountable for actions that reflect poorly on the organization are more likely to self-police. And if boards aren’t strong at the outset of a leader’s tenure, they put themselves in a position of having to become that way, as they have to deal with not just the fallout from a bad leader, but also the negative effects of financial losses and lawsuits brought on the entire organization.

“Boards can’t assume that simply by removing a leader, they will be able to change how people in the organization behave,” Chatman says. “The culture leaders helped create will still be embedded in the policies and practices that reward people for prioritizing uncollaborative and unethical behaviors.”

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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