How to manage a narcissistic boss

28 November 2017 -

Narcissistic BossResearch says millennials are set to become a generation of self-serving business leaders. Here’s how to get the best out of them

Guest blogger professor Susanne Braun

Social scientists have claimed narcissism is a ‘modern epidemic’. There has been concern about a rise in narcissistic behaviour, particularly in millennials, with many citing the rise in social media use, coupled with increased desire for individualism as reasons for this.

These millennials, who are likely to now be in the early stages of their careers, will be the business leaders of the future. Narcissistic traits in business leaders are already prominent, meaning it will only become more prevalent.  

Narcissists often pursue leadership roles, and are deemed a perfect fit for them by others, as they hold characteristics such as confidence, charisma and the ability to influence others. On paper, these traits are widely considered to be positive attributes for a leader to have.

However, in reality narcissists often push these too far, overstepping the mark. Confidence becomes arrogance; charisma becomes egotism and influence turns to bullishness, negatively impacting an organisation.

Despite often acting in their own best interest, narcissists can have a positive impact on their organisations, if such individuals are deployed in the right tasks and managed correctly.

Through my research into leadership, narcissism and its effect on productivity, I’ve outlined a number of ways businesses can do this.

Set ethical guidelines

Due to their lack of interest in others, narcissists often have a skewed moral compass. They lack empathy and remorse, which makes it difficult for them to work in team scenarios as they can ignore others.

With company reputation being more important than ever, having unethical leaders at the helm could be extremely costly. Organisations must implement simple and understandable ethical guidelines for their employees at all levels. These guidelines must outline what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour within the organisation, and highlight consequences for staff that refuse to adhere to these standards. They should also provide regular training opportunities for all, to ensure narcissistic leaders understand how to work ethically.

Use behaviour-based reward and promotion systems

Many organisations offer performance related reward and promotion systems to incentivise employees and acknowledge their value. However, too many of these reward and promotion systems are solely based upon the profits that an employee generates, and fail to consider other aspects of a leaders’ practice. These systems suit narcissistic leaders as their obsessive drive for success is rewarded, while the way they achieve these profits is disregarded.

Performance related systems must take into account all aspects of a leader’s practices, placing greater emphasis on how business is conducted and not just results. When offering performance-related incentives or promotions, it is important to not only carry out interviews, but also assess performance by reviewing their approach to ethical practices and gaining the perspectives of other employees.

Play to their strengths

Studies suggest narcissistic leaders struggle to make positive long-term relationships as they are often, seen as over-powering, unlikable and difficult to work with, over time. However, in initial meetings narcissists often appeal to others due to their charming nature.

Therefore, in areas such as attracting new business and beginning negotiations, narcissists can be highly beneficial and fit-for-purpose. They often excel when it comes to creative ideas and entrepreneurship, with their drive for personal success likely to boost an organisations sales and performance.

Allow them to shine

Narcissists crave recognition and depend heavily on affirmation from others, often self-selecting into roles and careers where they receive this praise regularly. This is because narcissists are often far more insecure within their own abilities than they appear. Therefore, it is important to give narcissists their ‘stage to shine’.

Allowing them to take the lead in company-approved projects and with teams encourages them to increase their efforts, as they realise their ego will be fulfilled every time they make a positive impact.

Teach humility

Often, if a leader consistently produces large profits and is considered crucial to an organisation’s success, they are not challenged on the ways they work. In an ideal world, leaders should be held responsible for their actions, and their wrongdoings should not be overshadowed by their successes.

Tomorrow’s business leaders must be taught to become responsible, accountable professionals with solid values, at the earliest stage possible in their careers. Business schools, universities and internships should provide this training, in order to better the values of young, potential business leaders. At Durham University Business School, we educate and foster the personal development of our students in the areas of ethical responsibility and sustainability, helping them to understand the value of humility.

Susanne Braun is Professor in Leadership at Durham University Business School. Susanne recently published a review of leader narcissism and outcomes in organizations in Frontiers in Psychology, available via:

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