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 / Spring 2009 / Issue 54(originally published by Booz & Company)


Recent Research

On self-involved leaders, emotional decisions, offshoring white-collar jobs, and more.



Photograph by Reed Young 

The Slippery Slope of Narcissism

Title: Leader Emergence: The Case of the Narcissistic Leader (Subscription or fee required.)
Authors:  Amy B. Brunell et al.
Publisher: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 34, no. 12
Date Published: December 2008

Have you ever worked for someone who had inflated views of himself — his value to the organization and his abilities as a manager? This self-assurance, often manifested in a single-minded drive for power and prestige, is a primary characteristic of narcissists, and, perhaps not surprisingly, is common to many top executives worldwide. Unfortunately, narcissism also produces a number of unpalatable consequences for those leaders (and ultimately for the organizations they lead), including alienation from colleagues, poor performance ratings from supervisors and peers, risky decision making, and even white-collar crime.

The authors of this study, who build on the long-standing academic interest in the role of narcissism in leadership, set out to determine why narcissists often wind up on top if their behavior has so many negative associations. For this research, which involved undergraduate students and professionals en­rolled in executive MBA programs, the authors defined a narcissist as a person who had higher-than-average scores on personality tests such as the Narcissistic Personality Inven­­­­­tory (NPI), a widely used measure of self-admiration. Among other things, the NPI examines people’s attitudes toward power and exhibitionism by asking them to rate themselves on such questions as “I have a natural talent for influencing people” or “I will usually show off if I get the chance.”

In one of the experiments the authors conducted to test their theories, 153 managers getting their executive MBAs were divided into several leaderless groups and asked to act as a university board and decide how to allocate a large financial contribution from a fictional company. The results revealed with statistical significance that the narcissists more often emerged as leaders. Using answers from a questionnaire in which the participating students rated their performance in the exercise and the performance of others, the authors determined that it was a desire for power, and not a desire for attention, that was at the core of the narcissists’ drive to assume leadership roles.

Interestingly, the narcissists were often identified as potential leaders by the other participants in the group because their self-assurance and outspokenness were viewed as indications that they were more qualified to hold top positions. These characteristics can be so at­tractive to others that it is difficult for them to identify the traits as those of a narcissist rather than those of a truly competent leader.

The authors conclude that organizations must learn to be more effective at spotting narcissism in rising talent within their organizations, and put in place checks and balances to ensure that such people don’t act unilaterally. For organizations dealing with narcissistic chief executives, the authors believe strong, independent boards and outside auditing committees could keep executives from engaging in risky behavior.

Bottom Line: The personality traits that lead narcissists to take control of groups are the same traits that are later associated with a range of troublesome behaviors. Organizations should put systems in place to identify narcissistic individuals before they are placed in critical management positions.


How Emotions Can Help (or Hurt) Your Business

Title: Blinded by Anger or Feeling the Love: How Emotions Influence Advice Taking (Subscription or fee required.)
Authors: Francesca Gino and Maurice E. Schweitzer
Publisher: Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 93, no. 5
Date Published: September 2008

Imagine a CEO faced with the critical decision of whether to buy a close competitor. To choose, she turns to her executive team for advice. Imagine it’s also been pouring rain all day and the chief ex­­ecutive was stuck in terrible traffic on her way to work. Could those seemingly un­related events affect whether she accepts or rejects her colleagues’ recommendations?

Yes, according to the authors of this study on how emotions — particularly incidental emotions, de­fined as feelings triggered by a prior, unrelated experience — affect a person’s willingness to accept advice for matters big and small. To study the impact of emotion, the authors first asked a group of college students to look at images of people on a screen and estimate how much they weighed. Next, each participant watched one of three short movie clips. These clips were designed to evoke gratitude or anger, or no feeling at all (in the case of the control group). After watching the clip, the participants returned to the first task, and this time were offered ad­vice to help them with their weight estimates. Participants in the gratitude group were significantly more receptive to the recommendations than the students in the neutral group, whereas members of the neutral group were more willing to take advice than those who had been shown clips designed to anger them.

Although it may be obvious that a person’s mood can affect his or her actions, this study highlights the importance of being aware of how emotions — even those that have little to do with the job at hand — can strongly influence decision making and advice taking.

Bottom Line: Emotions affect people’s willingness to accept recommendations. Being mindful of this influence could help temper the outcome of the decision-making process on the job.


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