A new paper by Berkeley Haas Prof. Jennifer Chatman and colleagues shows not only the profound impact narcissistic leaders have on their organizations, but also the long-lasting damage they inflict. Like carriers of a virus, narcissistic leaders “infect” the very cultures of their organizations, the researchers found, leading to dramatically lower levels of collaboration and integrity at all levels—even after they are gone.
The paper, “When ‘Me’ Trumps ‘We’: Narcissistic Leaders and the Cultures they Create,” in-press and published online by The Academy of Management Discoveries, is co-authored by Charles A. O’Reilly of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (MBA 71 and PhD 75) and former Berkeley Haas PhD student Bernadette Doerr.
In previous research about toxic leaders, Chatman and her colleagues found that narcissistic CEOs have a dark side that reveals itself slowly over time. Their exploitative, self-absorbed behavior sets them apart from the charismatic, “transformational” leaders they are often confused with. They are also paid more than their non-narcissistic peers, and there’s a larger gap between their pay and those of other top executives in their companies, often because they are so good at unfairly claiming credit for other’s accomplishments. Narcissistic leaders get their companies involved in more lawsuits, as well, Chatman and her colleagues’ research has found.
Narcissistic leaders have personalities that are profoundly grandiose, overconfident, and dishonest, credit-stealing, and blame-throwing, according to Chatman. They are abusive to their subordinates, think they are superior, don’t listen to experts, create conflict, and believe the rules simply don’t apply to them. They can explode in rage at any sign of disagreement or disloyalty. There’s always an “I” in their conception of the team.
In their latest paper, Chatman and her colleagues conducted a series of five experiments on 1,862 test subjects, as well as a field study that included CEOs of major companies, to discern the impact of narcissists’ bad behavior. The results show not only that leaders high on the narcissism scale are less collaborative and ethical, but also that the cultures of the organizations they lead are less collaborative and ethical. Ultimately, the researchers revealed exactly how narcissists institutionalize less collaborative and ethical behaviors and create lasting damage on employee morale and performance.
“Narcissistic leaders affect the core elements of organizations and their impact on society,” says Chatman, the Paul J. Cortese Distinguished Professor of Management. “Companies organize 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 organization. Without integrity, an organization risks its very survival.”
Jennifer A. Chatman is the Paul J. Cortese Distinguished Professor of Management, the Associate Dean of Learning Strategies, and Co-Director of the Berkeley Haas Culture Initiative at the Haas School of Business. She is a leading expert on how organizations leverage culture to adapt and grow, how leaders’ personalities shape culture, and how diverse teams can excel in high-pressure situations.
Chatman is available to speak with media about the long-term effects of toxic leadership.