How Narcissists Affect Teams At Work

Narcissists Don’t Empower Teams and Why That’s Bad

Mar 05, 2020
As Featured In 
Journal of Management Studies

When it comes to empowering a team to do their best work, you don’t want a narcissist at the helm, finds new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

“Narcissistic leaders are sometimes nasty, overbearing, self-centered and hard to deal with, says Maryland Smith management professor Hui Liao, co-author of the research, published in the Journal of Management Studies. “They often have the distinction of thinking they are better than everyone else and therefore feel entitled to power.”

It’s not shocking, then, that they are not good at relinquishing power to their team members, says Liao. “But organizations probably haven’t thought one step further to why this is bad for a team.”

Liao worked with co-authors from Rutgers University, Seoul National University and China Europe International Business School to look at how narcissists affect teams in the workplace. They find having a narcissistic leader is bad for business when organizations want to encourage work environments where employees share in power, participate in decision-making, take ownership of projects and let their creativity thrive.

“If you expect employees to really use their brain and take personal initiative to figure out best solutions, then you need to empower employees,” says Liao. “In this type of situation, if narcissistic leaders refuse to delegate power to employees, then employee performance suffers and team performance suffers.”

The researchers also looked at employee team members who are high on narcissism. Those individuals do well in empowering workplace cultures.

“When a leader does empower their employees, the narcissistic employees are more likely to welcome the opportunity, to accept the power, and to act accordingly,” says Liao. “As a result, we say narcissism in leaders and employees function differently. An empowering leadership culture actually works better for employees with high narcissism.”

But this result should be taken with caution, she says, as it doesn’t necessarily make employees with high narcissism superior employees. They can have difficulty working with others, and that’s going to undermine their contribution to team performance.

However, this doesn’t mean organizations should never hire narcissists – or maybe only consider them as employee team members, but never leaders. What about highly successful leaders classified as narcissists – say, Elon Musk or Steve Jobs? “They’ve succeeded not because of their narcissism, but despite it,” says Liao. “They were able to make up for it with so many other things. But if you don’t have the other characteristics these unbelievable individuals have, then I don’t think you’re going to be as successful.”

There are a lot of factors to consider in hiring and promotion decisions, Liao says, so the best way for organizations to implement the research findings is through employee development.

“The takeaway should be more about increasing your self-awareness and also where to direct your attention for development opportunities and behavioral adjustments,” says Liao.

Everyone has a certain level of narcissism, she says. Leaders who have high levels of narcissism just need to be made aware of their natural tendency to hold onto power and the negative consequences of not sharing it so hopefully they will behave differently in a team setting.

“I don’t care if you’re a narcissist in life, but at work when proactivity and team initiative is needed, just do what empowering leaders would do: Trust your team members and give them opportunities to participate and make decisions, and be there to coach them,” she says.

For narcissistic employees: “Remind them on one hand, you can take advantage of how narcissism means you’re comfortable with power, but at the same time you should be careful about the downside of narcissism. It’s not just your individual performance, it’s the team performance at stake here.”

So will narcissists actually be receptive to this advice? Liao hopes the evidence from her research will help.

“I believe that people are all goal-oriented and results-oriented,” she says. “If you show them what happens if you do not be more empowering, then they are going to realize it could actually jeopardize their chances of further advancement and leading this team more successfully. Therefore, they’ll be motivated to make some changes.”

Narcissism and Empowerment: How Narcissism Influences the Trickle-Down Effects of Organizational Empowerment Climate on Performance,” was published in the Journal of Management Studies.


About the Author(s)

Hui Liao

Dr. Hui Liao is the endowed Smith Dean's Professor in Leadership and Management at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. Before joining Maryland, she was on the faculties of the Rutgers University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She received her Ph.D. with concentrations in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and her BA in International Economics from the Renmin University of China.

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