The Rise of the Narcissistic Leader

Narcissism has become a sign of our times. You probably don’t need anyone to point this out to you. Nor does one need to be told that working for a narcissistic boss can have negative effects on your mental health. However, did you know that a new study from the University of Manchester’s Business School has found that those who work for narcissistic leaders are more likely to engage in counter-productive work behavior of their own?

Not only are narcissistic leaders destroying the morale of the employees who support them, but we now have research telling us that the narcissist’s behavior rubs off on those around them. Incidents of workplace bullying notably increase in organizations with narcissistic leaders.

“Leaders high in dark traits can be bad news for organizations,” said lead researcher Abigail Phillips in a press release. “Those high in psychopathy and narcissism have a strong desire for power and often lack empathy. This toxic combination can result in these individuals taking advantage of others, taking credit for their work, being overly critical, and generally behaving aggressively. In other words, leaders high in psychopathy and narcissism are more likely to be bullies.”

“Workplace bullying is obviously unpleasant for the target but also creates a toxic working environment for all involved,” Phillips said. “In short, bad bosses—those high in psychopathy and narcissism—have unhappy and dissatisfied employees who seek to ‘get their own back’ on the company.”

So what should an employee do if they find themselves reporting to a narcissistic leader who enjoys berating, belittling and demeaning them in front of others? The first step is to understand it and keep things in perspective. Remind yourself that the narcissist’s ego is fragile and he/she overcompensates for their insecurity by lashing out at others. You cannot take it personally or perceive is as a reflection on you, which is precisely what the narcissist is hoping you will do.

Instead, you must realize that a narcissist has no empathy and enjoys hurting others because they themselves are hurting. Since they are in a position of power, they will conveniently abuse this power in an attempt to make themselves feel better. Unfortunately, it does not make them feel better and only perpetuates the behavior in others as this new research now confirms.

The narcissistic boss spends all of their time creating and manufacturing a false reality that supports their grandiose view of themselves. They lie to themselves every day in order to preserve a false perception of how much they are loved and adored by their staff. Anyone who challenges this false reality will be punished.

The end result is never positive. An employee will recognize the behavior for what it is and decide to leave the organization or they will learn to mimic the narcissistic behavior in an effort to survive the toxic workplace dynamic. As a result, organizations lose good talent and unwittingly groom more workplace bullies.

It is important to note that narcissism falls on a spectrum. We are all narcissistic to a certain degree. It is part of the human condition. Narcissism becomes dangerous when one becomes so consumed with themselves that they lose the ability to see reality and become downright delusional. It is at this point, one’s narcissism becomes malignant or pathological. It is at this point, one’s narcissism can destroy an entire team or organization.

Employers who recognize malignant narcissism and take measures to prevent such behavior in the workplace (i.e. Ethics Hotline) will retain the best talent and maintain a competitive advantage. Those employers who fail to protect their employees will not only lose talent, but the talent that remains will become disconnected, demoralized and delusional. This is not a winning combination in today’s fast-paced workplace where collaboration and teamwork are essential in driving innovation and overall success.