Leaders' Perspectives on Learning Proclivity of Narcissistic Employees.

AuthorSubramanian, Arvind


There is an increase in narcissism among Generation Y which has serious implications for organizations. Narcissism entails an inflated positive view of the self and a motivation to reinforce continuously the positive self-view (Morf & Rhodewalt, 2001; Campbell, Goodie, & Foster, 2004; Chatterjee & Hambrick, 2007). Navis and Ozbek (2016) propose conceptually that narcissism inhibits learning and reduces the likelihood of opportunity realization in novel venture contexts characterized by high external uncertainties. Positive social cues such as social praise may motivate narcissists to take bold, positive actions such as adopting technological discontinuities (Chatterjee & Hambrick, 2011; Gerstner et al., 2013). Some indirect evidence also implies that narcissists learn less from failure. For example, narcissists respond to failure with more anger and anxiety (Rhodewalt & Morf, 1998) and they blame co-workers for their personal failures (Campbell et al., 2000). Highly narcissistic individuals tend to believe that they have superior qualities over others (e.g. Morf & Rhodewalt, 2001). As they are absorbed by their inner world and by their own sense of correctness (Campbell Goodie & Foster, 2004; Chatterjee & Hambrick, 2007), they are likely be inattentive to objective cues, including signals from current environment and their past experience.

Highly narcissistic individuals are motivated to interpret their past behavior positively so as to maintain their inflated positive self-view (Farwell & Wohlwend-Lloyd, 1998), especially when their behavior is publicly visible (Wallace & Baumeister, 2002; Campbell & Miller, 2011). At the same time, highly narcissistic individuals are less likely to interpret negatively their strategic decisions and their consequences because such an exercise would undermine self-esteem (Zhu & Chen, 2015). This tendency impedes critical reflection whereby personal assumptions and behaviors are challenged, even though critical reflection is needed for higher-level learning to occur (Cope, 2011).

Narcissistic CEOs tend to have fantasies of unlimited brilliance and competence (John & Robins, 1994; Farwell & Wohlwend-Lloyd, 1998) and believe that they learn more than others from the same learning opportunity (Paulhus, 1998). Research suggests that narcissistic people tend to believe that they have superior intelligence, competence, and learning ability (John & Robins, 1994; Farwell & Wohlwend-Lloyd, 1998; Paulhus, 1998).

Narcissism--at an Individual Level

Narcissism of the individual, by itself, has attracted the attention of many researchers. Amongst the plethora of characteristics that narcissists have, two important ones are reflected in cognition and motivation (e.g., Bushman & Baumeister, 1998; Chatterjee & Hambrick, 2007). Cognitively, narcissists have inflated self-views and tend to believe that they are endowed with superior abilities in an array of dimensions such as creativity, competence and leadership (Judge, LePine & Rich, 2006). Motivationally, narcissists feel an intense need to have their superiority continuously reaffirmed (Campbell, Goodie & Foster, 2004). Reaffirmation can be achieved to some extent from within, including through one's own exhibitionism or diminishment of others (Bogart, Benotsch & Pavlovic, 2004). More important, however, reaffirmations from others in the forms of applause, and adulation are eagerly desired and expected (Wallace & Baumeister, 2002).

While narcissism has both cognitive and motivational elements, some suggest that narcissism involves motivation more than cognition (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998). In other words, for narcissists, it is not so much about having a cognitive belief that they are endowed with superior abilities as about being motivated to maintain their superiority. As a result, narcissists have some general behavioral tendencies. On the positive side, narcissists feel good about themselves, and so they seek sensation, take bold actions and respond positively to positive feedback (Brunell et al, 2008; Wallace & Baumeister, 2002). On the downside, narcissists seek to protect and maintain an unrealistically high level of self-esteem (e.g., Vazire & Funder, 2006), and so they respond defensively and aggressively towards ego-threats (Judge, LePine & Rich, 2006; O'Boyle, Forsyth, Banks & McDaniel, 2012).

Narcissism--at an Organizational Level

A leader's behavior influences the organization's culture significantly. Over time, the organization develops a certain behavior with which it responds to internal and external stimuli. First and Tasman (2004) inform the creation of criteria associated with organizational narcissism. There are conditions under which the quality of a leader's narcissism leads others to assume dependency roles in relation to that leader. Persons entertaining such a dependent role do not see themselves as leaders and effective problem solvers. Individuals many times arrive at the place where they just want to be taken care of by idealized authority figures who are expected to provide caring, nurturance, and shelter from stress in return for unquestioning loyalty and subservience. This paves the way for the evolution of a 'Dependent Organization' (First & Tasman, 2004). The dependent organization suffers from the distorted worldview of its leaders and management, accepted and held by many of its executives, managers, and employees. Conditions prevail in such organizations under which the quality of a leader's narcissism leads others to assume dependency roles in relation to that leader. Persons entertaining such a dependent role do not see themselves as leaders and effective problem solvers.

Consequent to the formation of the dependent organization, interruptions in learning may occur as per March and Olsen (1975) and Kim (1993). Dysfunctional narcissistic behavior can result in Dependent Organizational Disorder and that the disorder carries symptoms associated with interruptions in organizational learning. Interruptions in learning resulting from dependent narcissistic behavior, disrupt organizational progress in their own right. Their introduction into the organization can become contagious, with disastrous results (Godkin & Allcorn, 2009). In organizations, conflicts arise among people with differing perspectives and beliefs. Social controversy promotes individual reasoning (Schwartzman, 1987; Weick, 1995) and improves the quality of information available to decision makers (Hage, 1980 cited in Weick, 1995). Behaviors such as this are uncommon in organizations and one should remain sensitive to the effects of narcissistic behavior here.

The Future Workforce

Considerable evidence exists that one of the characteristics of these so called Millennials is a propensity for narcissism (Bergman, Westerman & Daly, 2010). Twenge and Campbell (2008) list the following as observed characteristics of Millennials as opposed to previous generations: 1) higher self-esteem, 2) narcissism, 3) anxiety, 4) depression, 5) lower need for social approval, 6) more external locus of control and, 7) more agentic traits such as assertiveness, especially of women. Westerman and colleagues (2010) found that Millennial students from an AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business's) accredited business school (n = 536) had not only higher levels of narcissism than college students in the past, but also higher narcissism scores than students who were psychology majors at the same institution. These results led Westerman et al to ask the question "Are Business Schools Creating Narcissistic Employees?" A Newsweek story titled "Generation Me" (Kelly, 2009) stated "... we've created a generation of hot-house flowers puffed with a disproportionate sense of selfworth." Westerman et al (2010) also cite Hassett (2009) who wrote a piece titled "Harvard Narcissists with MBAs Killed Wall Street". Citing a number of studies that indicate problems with narcissism in organizational settings and with narcissists as managers, Westerman et al (2010: 3) conclude that "A rising tide of narcissism would present significant problems for organizations, their productivity and long-term viability."

Narcissists in the Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguous World

Millennials are more comfortable in states of relative uncertainty and simplicity in the absence of information because of their inherent avoidance of complexity. As such, there is a danger that Millennials may be predisposed to lower the definition of what is considered as adequate standards of output/ performance. This is problematic, since the world as we know it, is becoming more and more complex. The expectations of managers are not only to be able to manage the complexity, but also to predict or overpower the complexity. If we borrow from Cannon et al (2009), the complexity of a situation is expressed in the amount of information processing required to make effective decisions.

Narcissists have fragile self-concepts (Bergman et al, 2010). As such, they are hyper-sensitive to feedback that may disconfirm or threaten that fragile self-concept. This can lead to feelings of anger or embarrassment that can produce aggressive and/or anti-social behavior directed against the source of that perceived threat (Stucke & Sporer, 2002). Narcissists can perceive threats as coming from instructors as well as fellow students. As such, narcissists may be too potentially volatile to function successfully in environments characterized by innovative or non-traditional learning.

These traits apply not only to individualized learning. They may also manifest in groups or teams utilized in simulation and experiential learning. Given their tendency to externalize failure, narcissists may be a ticking time bomb in group efforts where the collaboration is fueled by a large number of alternatives under consideration and where information is exchanged freely and openly. Furthermore, the...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT