Narcissists have reduced motivation in subordinate positions

The personality trait known as narcissism is associated with a number of potentially troublesome personal characteristics, like entitlement and a general disregard for others. People who display excessive narcissism typically desire positions of leadership, status and power. Ample research has already been performed on the impact of narcissistic personalities when placed in leadership roles, but less is known about their impact when placed in subordinate positions within a company.

A 2016 article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Alex J. Benson, Christian H. Jordan and Amy M. Christie has shown that narcissism may support a resistance to follower roles that can be disruptive to group functioning.

Four studies were included in this investigation. The first included 105 subjects (66 female) who were assigned to either a low (follower) or high status (leader) role. Narcissism was measured with a 40 item inventory prior to role assignment and the experiment concluded with a self-report of role satisfaction. Before being assigned, subjects also participated in a staged psychological test to make them believe that their assignments would be based on these results. Subjects high in narcissism were more satisfied with leadership positions and less so as followers when compared to those with lower scores in the trait.

Experiment 2 repeated the first with a sample of 135 participants (63 female), but they were instead informed that the psychological test had nothing to do with their assignments. A self-interest measure was added to determine if it was related to role assignment reactions. It was found that narcissism was still associated with negative reactions to follower roles, even after the illusion of test-based assignments was removed. Motivation for self-interest was also reduced by being assigned to the leadership role.

The third study looked at the impact of role assignment on a trait narcissist’s willingness to contribute to the collective good of the group. The design of Study 1 was once again repeated but with an additional measure for willingness to contribute. Participants with high rates of narcissism were less willing when assigned to be followers, signifying a potential point of group disruption.

Finally, the fourth experiment examined the association as it may exist in sports teams, which represent a real-world example with many dynamic roles. Researchers recruited 213 participants, all of which were female flag-football players. Data was obtained using questionnaires filled out by the subjects at various times throughout a tournament.

Narcissism was associated with both displeasure in roles perceived as being “lesser”, as well as an increased likelihood of perceiving their assigned positions as being below their abilities. Taken in combination, the four parts of this investigation clearly demonstrate that, when placed in a role perceived as being subordinate, narcissistic personalities can have a disruptive effect on group environments in both theoretical and practical contexts.