Narcissism appears to be on the rise among today’s business and entrepreneurial leaders, if you read the business pages and academic research on a regular basis. And this isn’t always a bad thing: Narcissists can be compelling leaders capable of executing grand strategic visions.
But all too often they are described as highly self-absorbed individuals who believe they are superior to those around them.
And while successful entrepreneurs tend to have high levels of self-confidence and an intense drive for success, often they’ll fall prey to the problems associated with the darker aspects of narcissism: Specifically, they take unnecessary risks, hold too tightly to their vision when change is needed and fail to recognise the work and sacrifices of those around them.
In our new study, which was published in May in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, my research partners and I sought to gain a better understanding of just how problematic narcissistic leaders are, and what they might do to lessen the negative outcomes. We surveyed 262 employees and their (262) direct supervising managers over a four-week period at a large Chinese technology company.
Overall, we found the harmful consequences of narcissistic leaders to be wide-ranging.
Just how harmful is a harmful narcissistic leader?
We began by asking leaders at the tech company we targeted to complete a widely used Narcissistic Personality Inventory test. Employees, meanwhile, were asked to report on their organisation-based self-esteem, meaning the degree to which they felt they belonged in their organisation.
As researchers we were operating on the understanding that the need to belong is a fundamental human need and motivator, but that narcissistic leaders fail to satisfy this need among their employees because of their high levels of self-concern.
Those high levels mean leaders like these ignore the feelings of others. Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, for example, was often described as highly self-absorbed and inconsiderate of others. She was often criticised for being habitually late to meetings and dismissive of her constituents’ ideas and suggestions.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, is also said to be highly abrasive, and to tend to berate employees who fail to live up to his impossibly high standards. One former engineer at the company referred to critical interactions with the SpaceX CEO as an “Elon ass-kicking” and said some employees felt “crushed under the weight” of those interactions. Not surprisingly, both Musk and Mayer have been recognised as some of the most narcissistic CEOs in the tech industry.
Our study found that 51 percent of employees with narcissistic leaders disagreed or strongly disagreed with statements asking if they felt valuable in the workplace. Moreover, this diminished sense of belonging had wide-ranging consequences on these employees’ behaviour. Specifically:
- 34 percent of employees surveyed disagreed or strongly disagreed with statements asking if they helped other group members with their responsibilities
- 31 percent of employees disagreed or strongly disagreed with statements asking if they spoke up to their leader about their own improvement-oriented suggestions
- 37 percent of employees agreed or strongly agreed with statements asking if they badmouthed their leader to their coworkers
- 18 percent of employees agreed or strongly agreed with statements asking if they intentionally tried to disrupt task completion by ignoring their leader’s requests.
Such behaviours are troublesome enough for established companies, but for start-ups – whose survival depends on quick action and cooperation from all employees – the consequences can be dire.
How can narcissistic leaders avoid the pitfalls of their personalities?
We asked employees to report whether their leader consulted with them before making decisions. While this kind of consultation is an influence tactic leaders use to gain employee support, it can also signal to employees that their contributions are valued.
We found that among narcissistic leaders, 27 percent frequently consulted with employees while another 43 percent consulted with employees to some extent.
Importantly, we found that when narcissistic leaders consulted with employees, the detrimental outcomes stemming from such leadership were not simply reduced, but eliminated completely. Here are three takeaways:
Active listening means that you concentrate on the message being communicated; you don’t just passively “receive” the message. Unfortunately, most narcissistic leaders have difficulty focusing on what others are saying and often ignore their advice.
One classic example of a narcissistic leader who altered his behavior to more attentively listen to others was Steve Jobs. Much of Jobs’ success upon returning to the helm at Apple in 1997 was attributed to the drastic change in his interpersonal behavior from his prior tenure in 1985.
Not only was he more willing to listen to his employees, but he was described as someone who “seemed to relish other people’s ideas.” Our research indicated that employees are likely to discount their narcissistic leaders’ more abrasive qualities when those leaders take the time to actively listen to their suggestions.
Don’t just listen. Invite employees’ involvement in the making and development of decisions. Our study demonstrated that when narcissistic leaders invite employees to participate in leadership processes, those employees experience a sense of ownership in the process that can help alleviate the leader’s more harmful tendencies.
In particular, such behaviour signals to employees that their narcissistic leader is not only willing to listen when they, the employees, have concerns or suggestions, but actually desire to receive those employee contributions.
According to Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, the best leaders “make a religion out of being accessible.” Likewise, our research emphasised the importance of narcissistic leaders making themselves accessible to individual employees.
Despite his narcissism, Welch often sent personal notes to his executives and met one-on-one with employees at all levels. Such behaviours were part of the programs Welch instituted to enhance employees’ “feelings of ownership and self-worth” in the GE culture. We found that the individual attention employees receive when they’re consulted provides the interpersonal interaction they crave, but rarely receive, from their narcissistic leader.
Due to the dynamic environment of the typical entrepreneurial venture, communication and cooperation from employees is a necessity for continued growth and survival. Although entrepreneurial leaders may be more narcissistic than their counterparts in non-entrepreneurial vocations, the pitfalls associated with their tendencies may be avoidable.
The key is for such leaders to understand how their narcissism is affecting others and actively work to adjust and adapt their behavioir.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
What A Grade 1 Sticker Business Taught Me About Business
It’s the very fundamentals that are frequently overlooked amid ambition and “blue sky thinking” – yet, these remain the most crucial element of any business.
When I was a kid, my father believed that instead of getting pocket money, my brothers and I should learn how to make money. Stickers were the school craze when I was in Grade 1, and we wanted a collection for ourselves, so Dad said if we wanted to buy the stickers, we needed to make the money. So, logically, we started a sticker trading business. Dad gave us the start-up money and took us through the basics of business.
We had a cash float for purchases, and learnt about cost price, mark-up and selling price – very basic accounting. We kept recycling that money, making extra and using it to buy more stickers. Then we worked out that if we increased the mark-up, we’d make a bigger profit – so why not make the mark-up as big as possible? The obvious happened. Our prices were too high, and we lost customers.
Valuable business lesson learnt, we came back down to a mark-up that other kids were willing to pay for.
More lessons to learn
Then people came to us and asked if they could take a sticker today and pay us tomorrow. We saw no reason not to trust them. Guess what? They didn’t pay us back. We had bad debt on our hands. When we sold out of stickers, we had cash-flow issues and couldn’t buy more stock. Dad was there to help us out, though, so we received another capital injection to get back off the ground. And this time, if we did extend credit, we loaded it for the privilege of “buy now, pay later” – another lesson learnt.
We ran a proper ledger for the business, tracking our inventory, sales and profit. Even if our “bank” account was a piggy bank, we had a clear record of what was going on. When I look back on it, none of what I learnt was irrelevant.
Today, I run a leading financial services company with billions of rand running through our bank accounts. Even though the finances of the business are run on a much larger scale, the principles of business – those basic principles that we learnt trading stickers – still power our company. And when I see entrepreneurial ventures failing, or when friends come to me for advice because their business is struggling, it’s almost always because they haven’t got these basics right.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt is that if you don’t fully understand how the money is being made, walk away. Whether you are dealing with stickers or financial services, the business principles should be straightforward: money coming in, money going out, and profitability.
Every day, I look at an Excel statement of my company’s forty bank accounts. Every day, I look at the cashflow, and unusual big-ticket items get a note so I know what’s going on. It’s just like that Grade 1 business, only on a bigger scale.
Once the other kids saw the success of our sticker business, they started to want to get in on the action, so they came to market with their own competing products. At first, we were able to innovate as the competition squeezed our margins and started to impact on our profits. Eventually, the whole situation got completely out of hand and the school banned sticker trading for profit.
While I didn’t become a sticker magnate, the lessons I learnt in Grade 1 remain central to every business I am involved with – get the basics right.
How To Handle A Director Who Always Says No
Diverse opinions on a board is a good thing — but is it boosting your business, or hindering growth and decisions?
Do you have that director on your board who always says ‘no’? Regardless of what the issue is, regardless of the context, who raises it or whether or not it is indeed a good idea, their response is either a simple ‘no’ or an elongated perspective on why they disagree? It can even feel at times that they are actively working against the company and against the board. Although they obviously do not see it that way.
Experienced directors will have multiple war stories related to this subject. Aspiring directors should be aware of how to approach these situations when they arise and how to avoid becoming the subject of such stories.
Develop a culture of trust, candour and professionalism
A board’s conduct must be characterised by trust, respect, candour, professionalism, accountability, diligence and commitment. It is the board’s collective responsibility to build this culture and to engage with one another in a productive and effective way.
Dissent should be welcomed when it is constructive and engaging. The idea of being the ‘devil’s advocate’ for the sake of it however, is not the best way to approach this. Dissent should be based on a real belief that the issue has not been fully debated or creates a real challenge for the company going forward.
If you have a director who genuinely believes a different path is right for the company, hear them out and engage in the discussion. In my experience, this often opens up an issue or changes a detail that when taken as part of the whole, improves the decision-making outcome for the board and the company.
Related: Contributing In The Boardroom
Remove the politics from the boardroom
At the heart of this issue is often politics. Politics between directors, who are also shareholders or executives. Politics between the ‘new guard’ and the ‘old.’ Regardless of the genesis, politics really do not have a place in the boardroom and directors who engage in it should be called out by the chairman or another senior director.
In local government I have heard stories of councillors who always vote ‘no,’ so that whenever something goes wrong, they can say “I told you so,” and show the public why they should be re-elected. But that is indeed politics. The boardroom is a very different space. It is private and discussions should be confidential.
Board rotation, a simple solution
While the removal of an errant director should never just be left to resolve itself, there is a simple solution that can support the easy removal of the most difficult directors. The challenge is that it requires forward planning prior to the appointment of any new director.
Directors should only ever be appointed for a predefined term, with automatic rotation at the end of that term. This does not stop you from reappointing a director for a further period. It is, however, always easier to ask someone to consider a further term than it is to tell them that their time has come and they should resign from the board.
Having a predefined term for a director essentially ensures an automatic resignation period. A simple rotation policy for directors is not just good governance, it is a practical step you can take to provide a way out of a sticky relationship.
Ultimately the board as a whole must address issues that detract from the board fulfilling its function as and when they arise. A rotation policy might provide an effective backstop. A high-performance board is one that will tackle the issue head-on.
Read next: How Diversity Drives Board Performance
The Power Pose: Using Body Language To Lead
Use the way you move and stand and interact with others to become a better entrepreneur and leader.
In 2012, the power pose became a global sensation. A Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy hit a staggering 46 million views and became the second most popular Ted Talk in history. The premise was simple – hold a powerful pose and it will not only affect the way you behave but it will even change your body chemistry. Since the talk, the power pose has met with heavy criticism and been labelled as nothing more than pseudoscience. Fortunately for believers, they were proven right. Amy Cuddy released further research this year and it fundamentally proves that this bold stance works exactly how she said it did back in 2012.
The power pose isn’t something that you’d adopt in a meeting or around the office but the science behind it shows how important it is to pay attention to your body language as it can fundamentally change how you are perceived.
Notice how you are noticed
People spend a lot of time reading one another’s body language and the way a person stands or holds their hands or moves can influence how others see them. It’s very natural to judge someone else’s posture, but what about the way they are judging yours? Few people look at how their body language is affecting the way people engage with them.
So, what are you supposed to do?
Fake it until you make it
Want to know how can you adapt to become a better leader? You can fake it.
The power pose isn’t the only way to change your mood. Research has shown that whether you laugh naturally or put on a smile and make yourself laugh, your body still releases the same levels of serotonin.
Whether you are really laughing or just pretending to laugh doesn’t matter – they both have the same impact on your demeanour.
Change how others see you
Think about the pose that every athlete adopts when they win a race or achieve something that’s been physically taxing. They hold their hands outstretched in the air. Even blind athletes hold the same pose. It’s big, it’s bold and it’s a physical manifestation of success.
Now consider the defensive pose. The tight hunched shoulders or inward curve of the spine. These poses immediately make a person look nervous, afraid and lacking in confidence. Like the porcupine curling in on itself for protection.
The same ideas apply to daily business life. While the power pose and the athlete pose are not necessarily a team activity, ensuring that you hold your body upright and with confidence means that you’re conveying an attitude of strength. You come across as confident and capable and positive. You are ready to take on anything and overcome the odds.
By contrast, if you are hunched and withdrawn, you come across as nervous and lacking in confidence and these are not the qualities you want associated with you as an entrepreneur and a leader.
Body language for entrepreneurs
- Shake hands like a hero. The way you shake hands with someone is very significant in terms of establishing equality. Be even, be firm but don’t pull people towards you or turn their hands under your own. This makes them feel like you are trying to establish dominance.
- Create an atmosphere of openness. Maintain eye contact, say hello to people with warmth while holding a strong posture. A warm and open greeting is essential to establishing trust.
- Do the power pose for two minutes before any meeting or interview. This will get those chemicals stirring and make you feel confident and in charge.
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