Toxic organisational cultures left behind by narcissistic leaders can take significant time and effort to clear up, according to new research from Berkeley Haas School of Business, flagged up in a recent news story. (Fast Company, 7 October 2020)

Produced as part of a series of reports on narcissism in leadership, Berkeley’s latest study – When ‘Me’ Trumps ‘We’: Narcissistic Leaders and the Cultures They Create – asserts that:

         1.    “people who are more narcissistic are less likely to demonstrate collaboration and integrity in their behaviour”, and
         2.    “employees follow the culture in determining their own level of collaboration and integrity, suggesting that narcissistic                           leaders’ behaviour is amplified through culture”. (Berkeley Haas School of Business, September 2020)

In a statement, Berkeley’s Paul J Cortese Distinguished Professor of Management and report co-author Jennifer Chatman explains: “Narcissistic leaders affect the core elements of organisations and their impact on society. Companies organise 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 organisation. Without integrity, an organisation risks its very survival.” (Berkeley Haas School of Business via EurekAlert!, 5 October 2020)

Chatman notes: “Narcissists don't create narcissists,” Chatman says. “It’s not about doing what the leader does. It’s about the leader creating a culture that induces people to act less ethically and less collaboratively than they would otherwise, whether they're narcissists or not.”

To mitigate the effects of a narcissistic leader, Chatman suggests:

  • basing their pay deal and evaluation criteria on the development of their people,
  • aligning their compensation with team performance, and
  • rewarding their collaboration with peers.

Those measures, she argues, may encourage leaders to be more enthusiastic about sharing credit and working with others. However, in cases where a narcissistic leader must be removed, there’s a long, tough road ahead. 

“Boards can’t assume that simply by removing a leader, they will be able to change how people in the organisation behave,” Chatman says. “The culture leaders helped create will still be embedded in the policies and practices that reward people for prioritising uncollaborative and unethical behaviours. Turning around this kind of culture will take explicit effort and likely a significant amount of time.”

Which actions should any organisation facing this type of scenario take?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The trail of wreckage left behind by a narcissistic leader will be especially pronounced in the arena of relationships – particularly within the context of teams. One classic, documented way to manage a narcissistic leader is to flatter them. Another is to take all their quirks and idiosyncrasies seriously – often to avoid negative consequences. So, having a successful working relationship with such leaders often means lavishing them with a huge amount of attention, because they’re very high-maintenance.”

As such, she points out, “team members working under those strained conditions wouldn’t have been able to give due time and attention to maintaining their relationships with each other. It’s very likely that there would be low levels of trust within those sorts of teams, because managing their narcissistic leader has taken up so much bandwidth.”

Cooper notes that, in terms of how to counteract narcissism and its after-effects, “Chatman has got it absolutely right: reward the behaviours you want to see. Set only team-based goals. Report only on collaborative efforts. With those sorts of measures in place, you will be in a position to rebuild trust through recognising and highlighting staff interdependencies – links that a narcissistic leader would no doubt have scrambled or undermined.”

She explains: “As a narcissist is typically so confident of the huge contribution that they are personally making to the organisation’s success, their natural instinct would be to downplay the contribution that others have made. And crucially, a major hallmark of a narcissistic leader’s behaviour is that they are very aggressive towards anyone who threatens their status – so team members would have learned to keep their heads down and focus on individual survival. That would automatically have impeded communication between them.”

Cooper adds: “Chatman’s strategies may be difficult to implement effectively while the relevant leader is still in post, because they are unlikely to see the measures as legitimate. It would also be a challenge to screen out such individuals at candidacy stage, given that copious confidence is something that the interview process tends to reward. But once a narcissistic leader has left, Chatman’s thoughts provide a solid base to build on. Recognise that trust must be rebuilt – and that this process will require a very systematic and deliberate approach.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on integrity

For the Institute’s thoughts on how to boost collaboration, check out its 2018 report Building Collaborative Capacity

Source refs:

Fast Company, 7 October 2020

Berkeley Haas School of Business, September 2020

Berkeley Haas School of Business via EurekAlert!, 5 October 2020