New research provides evidence that narcissistic business leaders can have a detrimental impact on the workplace by triggering a sense of uncertainty among middle management. The findings have been published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented set of challenges for many businesses and previous research has highlighted the importance of CEOs during times of crisis. The authors of the new study sought to examine how a CEO’s personality affected perceived uncertainty in the workplace amid the pandemic.
“When the pandemic started, we could see that what CEOs say and do often gained a lot of spotlights because their decisions can greatly impact employees’ personal lives. In particular, as employees looked to the CEOs for care and motivation at the onset of the crises, we believe that their workplace behaviors would change greatly when their CEOs do not seem to fulfill this expectation,” explained study author Jooyoung Kim, a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University.
“That was where we came to be interested in CEO narcissism, which we thought would not fit with people’s expectations for a crisis leader. We also focused on middle managers because, given their roles in linking bottom line employees and top management, they are the ones who tend to have more information about the CEO and the ones thought to play important roles in the firm’s survival and adaptation during the crises.”
For their study, the researchers asked 200 middle managers how much they agreed or disagreed that that their CEO was a very self-centered person, had an inflated view of him/herself, bragged about him/herself to get positive strokes from others, had done one favor as long as he/she gets two or more in return, will go out of his/her way to cause others harm to get ahead, and always has to be the center of attention.
Kim and her team found that perceived CEO narcissism among managers was positively associated with their sense of uncertainty, which in turn was associated with laissez-faire leadership. In other words, managers who perceived their CEO to be narcissistic were more likely to report that they “felt unclear regarding what is expected of me at work” and managers who felt this sense of uncertainty were less likely to get involved when a subordinate raised important issues and more likely to avoid making decisions for subordinates.
Business threats, such as plummeting revenue, also appeared to exacerbate the link between narcissism and uncertainty. In a second study of 318 working adults, the researchers found that the relationship between perceived CEO narcissism and perceived uncertainty in the workplace tended to be stronger when perceived business threat was higher.
“The biggest takeaway is that CEOs need to pay attention to their language and behaviors during crises,” Kim told PsyPost. “The findings of this research suggest that, when middle managers view the CEOs as narcissistic (i.e., managers’ evaluation of their CEOs as having inflated self-views and being self-centered, entitled, indifferent to others, and attention-seeking), they tend to engage in workplace behaviors that may not necessarily benefit the company in the long run. Therefore, we believe it is important that middle managers work in unison with CEOs in times of crisis in order for a firm to adapt successfully to the changing environment due to the pandemic.”
As for the study’s limitations, Kim noted that “we did not take into account the different stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. We conducted our study during the onset of the pandemic and the situation has changed much since then. Things are less unknown than before and firms have adapted and established routines for the new normal. Therefore, a key assumption of our research — high visibility of CEOs’ behaviors and words on the part of middle managers — may not be as strong as before.”
The study, “When CEOs Are All About Themselves: Perceived CEO Narcissism and Middle Managers’ Workplace Behaviors Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic“, was authored by Jooyoung Kim, Hun Whee Lee, He Gao, and Russell E. Johnson.