A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences found that when those with narcissistic personality traits can have negative reactions when they intersect with ethical leadership. Further, the findings indicate that anger is the mediator between those with narcissistic personality traits experiencing ethical leadership and their subsequent withdrawal. This research may help employers understand how those with dark personality traits cope with leadership.
When employees experience anger due to workplace circumstances, it can lead to withdrawal behaviors that can affect their peers and overall productivity. Withdrawal can look like more absences, longer breaks, or a slowdown in responsiveness. This response is known as an “avoidant” anger response and is more common in the workplace than an “approach” response to anger. If individuals use the approach response, they are more likely to get into conflicts bringing their behavior to the attention of leadership and leaving them vulnerable to discipline or termination.
Research has found that when narcissists and those with narcissistic personality traits perceive self-threats, they respond by psychologically avoiding or distancing themselves, hoping to reduce the resulting emotional impact. The research team hypothesized that narcissists might perceive those who make decisions that are ethical or benefit the group over the individual as threatening and, as a result, will respond with avoidant workplace behavior.
To test this hypothesis, the authors conducted two studies. Study 1 exposed 392 participants to demonstrations of ethical leadership to examine how narcissism, ethical leadership, and anger interact. In Study 2, they surveyed 256 employees of a community college. All participants completed measures of narcissism, anger, and withdrawal.
The results of these efforts revealed that when employee narcissism and ethical leadership are found in the same workplace there was an indirect impact on work withdrawal (for those with narcissistic traits) through experienced anger. Furthermore, this effect was stronger when the ethical leadership was strong.
The study provides practical implications for workplace leadership. The findings suggest that not all employees will respond as expected to ethical leadership, particularly those with narcissistic tendencies. Ethical managers should be ready for the potential negative consequences of their leadership style. The study also reveals how complex workplace systems can be, and for leaders to meet their goals, they may need to be prepared for unexpected employee responses.
Limitations to the study include using surveys to collect data, leaving their results vulnerable to bias. Second, the measure of anger identified traits rather than state anger. Although research has found state and trait anger to be closely related, using this measure may leave some aspects of anger unmeasured.
Overall, the research advances the understanding of the many possible responses to ethical leadership that result from the dark personality trait of narcissism. The study demonstrates the importance of considering the combination of personality and context on workplace outcomes.
The study also contributes to the emerging literature exploring whether ethical leadership in the workplace always results in positive outcomes. By shedding light on the possible negative consequences of ethical leadership, the study offers insights for managers to create a more positive workplace culture.
The study, “Take your ethics and shove it! Narcissists’ angry responses to ethical leadership“, was authored by Faith R. Fox, Mickey B. Smith, and Brian D. Webster.