Subordinates tend to be most satisfied with leaders who display a small degree of narcissism, according to new research published in Personality and Individual Differences. The study provides evidence for an inverted U-shaped relationship between leader grandiose narcissism and follower satisfaction.
The researchers conducted this study to better understand the relationship between narcissism and leadership. They specifically focused on grandiose narcissism, which is characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, lack of empathy, and a strong need for admiration. They wanted to examine how grandiose narcissism in leaders affects follower satisfaction.
“Often those who are in positions of power have narcissistic tendencies,” said study author Gerhard Blickle, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Bonn. “I was interested in finding out whether this really can work because leadership by narcissists often works poorly. Narcissists get easily in positions of power and leadership but they are often poor leaders.”
To conduct their study, the researchers collected data from 640 leaders and 1,259 of their subordinates (followers) in various organizations. The leaders self-rated their grandiose narcissism using the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Questionnaire (NARQ), which measures both agentic extraversion and antagonism.
Agentic extraversion refers to traits such as a grandiose sense of self-importance, high self-assuredness, superficial charm, and a strong need for excessive admiration. Antagonism, on the other hand, involves traits such as a lack of empathy, a sense of entitlement, and a tendency towards arrogant, manipulative, and exploitative behaviors.
The leaders also provided ratings of their extraversion and agreeableness using the HEXACO-60 personality questionnaire. Extraversion refers to the tendency to be outgoing, energetic, and sociable, while agreeableness refers to the inclination to be kind, cooperative, and compassionate towards others.
The followers rated their satisfaction with their leaders using a five-point scale. (e.g., “How satisfied are you personally with the leadership of your direct supervisor?”)
The researchers found that there is a curvilinear relationship between a leader’s grandiose narcissism and follower satisfaction. This means that up to a certain point, a moderate level of narcissism in a leader may lead to higher follower satisfaction. However, beyond that point, as narcissism increases further, follower satisfaction starts to decline.
“A small dose of narcissism makes persons in leadership roles more successful,” Blickle told PsyPost. “It is a matter of quantity not a matter of quality. A high dose of narcissism very often has detrimental effects on follower satisfaction and leaders’ performance. High modesty in leadership roles also does not seem to work. So it’s the middle way which makes leaders successful and followers satisfied with their leaders.”
Importantly, these findings held even after the researchers controlled for leader age, gender, job tenure, working hours, hierarchical position, and educational level, and follower gender, age, duration working together, and contact frequency.
“I was surprised that high leader humility did not reap more positive effects on follower satisfaction,” Blickle said.
The researchers also discovered that the specific behaviors exhibited by narcissistic leaders had different impacts on how satisfied their followers were with them. Behaviors associated with charm were positively related to follower satisfaction. On the other hand, behaviors associated with devaluation were negatively related to follower satisfaction.
Additionally, when Blickle and his colleagues controlled for extraversion and agreeableness, the U-shaped relationship between leader grandiose narcissism and follower satisfaction disappeared. This suggests that grandiose narcissism exerts its effects via these two personality traits.
The study contributes to our understanding of the complex relationship between narcissistic traits and follower satisfaction, highlighting the importance of considering the specific behaviors in determining their impact. However, it is important to note that the study was cross-sectional, and future research could benefit from longitudinal designs.
“Our study was not predictive,” Blickle said. “Future research should test leader narcissism now and follower satisfaction a year or two later.”
“Future research should analyze the effects of leader narcissism in combination with leader social skill,” he added. “Previous research has found that social skill can camouflage dark personality traits such as Machiavellianism.”
The study, “Is a little narcissism a good thing in leadership roles? Test of an inverted U-shaped relationship between leader grandiose narcissism and follower satisfaction with leader“, was authored by Gerhard Blickle, Franziska Böhm, and Andreas Wihler.