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How to get the best out of your narcissistic leaders

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The characteristics of a narcissist are at odds with what most people would define as a good boss, Professor Susanne Braun explores.

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Despite this, narcissists occupy many top leadership positions. A narcissist is someone who is self-orientated, risk-taking and strives for recognition. All traits that help narcissists to rise to the top ranks of an organisation but are not necessarily conducive to effective leadership and management of others, or acting in the organisation’s best interests.

Left to their own devices, narcissists can cause problems within a company.

Narcissistic leaders start out well due to their ability to charm others, but this often quickly turns sour and they fail to build positive relationships with their colleagues in the long run. But, could it be possible to utilise these traits for the benefit of your business? Studies, including my own, suggest this is certainly possible, in fact, one study by Professor Michael-Jörg Oesterle demonstrates this. He conducted a study with 31 large German manufacturing firms and found that CEO narcissism predicted growth in internationalism strategies, showing how, with some honing, these personality traits could be advantageous.

It also seems that learning to work with narcissists will be crucial for future business. Psychologist Dr Jean Twenge, in her book ‘Generation Me’, found that narcissism is a particularly prevalent trait in today’s young adults.

It is part of the role of a successful manager to mould their employees into business leaders of the future, effectively combating narcissistic behaviours. My own research has investigated the impact of narcissism on leadership and from this I have outlined four simple steps that organisations can use to effectively manage their narcissistic leaders:

  1. Consider job design

Narcissists should be placed in roles which allow them to thrive. Such individuals are likely to perform better in areas where they are given responsibility and can exercise full control, influence and gain plenty of visibility. They are typically overly concerned with personal success which, as a result, can drive team sales and performance, positively affecting the organisation as a result. Their charismatic personas also make them suitable for initiating relationships with customers and clients, even if they are not best placed to maintain them.

Whichever area of the business they are working in, it is essential that narcissists are given regular attention and feedback, to positively reinforce their efforts and consequently, make them repeat these desired behaviours.

  1. Provide a ‘stage to shine’

Narcissistic leaders strive for positive recognition from the public, media and their peers. Despite their confident outward personas, narcissists typically have fragile egos and crave public acknowledgement for their accomplishments.

They often self-select into roles and careers where there is opportunity to receive such praise regularly, however if this is not the case they should be given the opportunities, where possible, to take the lead in certain projects. Consequently, when their individual contributions are recognised they are more likely to contribute to team and company performance.

  1. Set ethical guidelines

A narcissist may not intend to cause harm but can often be oblivious to others’ wellbeing and lack empathy. This can have a negative effect upon a business if narcissists are only concerned with themselves and not the wider team. To combat this, clear ethical guidelines should be implemented within organisations for all employees to adhere to.

Employees should also receive thorough and regular training on acceptable conduct and business values. This will highlight behaviour and actions which are considered unacceptable, in order to curb instances where narcissists drive to succeed and take risks which could cross ethical boundaries. Narcissists will therefore be taught how to work collaboratively in a supportive, positive manner, as well as with external partners.

Training should also be provided on the value of humility, encouraging employees to continue learning. Such training should be made available to all staff, not just senior figures, to help set the organisations’ values. At Durham University Business School, for instance, we emphasise the importance of personal development with our students in the areas of ethical responsibility and sustainability, helping them to set the tone for their future careers.

  1. Rethink reward systems

Narcissists are competitive by nature. Therefore, creating reward and promotion structures which encourage them to comply with the organisations value systems can appeal to their competitive tendencies and help them to adjust their behaviour to shared standards. Performance related reward systems could be adapted to place greater emphasis on how they conduct their business and how they work within a team, rather than rewarding individual achievements, or end gains.

These systems should be implemented regularly throughout the duration of an individual’s career within the company and form a part of appraisals as narcissists can often charm others in such scenarios, disregarding objective information and acting in a charismatic way to smooth over any areas of concern.

When performance-based promotions and incentives are given, it is important to not only carry out interviews but also consult other staff members about their views regarding the individual.

Professor Susanne Braun

Susanne is Professor in Leadership at Durham University Business School. Her research focuses on authentic leadership, identity, leader narcissism. She is particularly interested in the bright sides and dark sides of leadership and how they affect productivity and wellbeing in organisation. Susanne recently published a review of leader narcissism and outcomes in organizations in Frontiers in Psychology, available via: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00773

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