As quoted by the 40th President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan, “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”
Anti-subordinate behaviours (ASB) shown by narcissistic leaders could very well be a social and cultural norm a few years ago, as with other forms of dark personality traits associated with leaders. ASB represent negative behaviours that results in the mistreatment of subordinates, by any party. ASB illegitimately undermines or sabotages the motivation, well-being or job satisfaction of subordinates in an organization and is inclusive of negative acts such as belittling, bullying, harassing, disturbing, stalking, threatening, and even assaulting a subordinate, either physically or mentally. The widespread phenomenon of workplace bullying, harassment, sabotage, corruption and dishonesty and ill-treatment of subordinates has prompted in-depth study on anti-subordinate behaviour in leaders, due to most perpetrators being the supervisor or leader in an organization. These forms of ASB can create a ripple effect throughout the organisation, affecting subordinates’ mental states, negatively impacting on subordinates’ morale and causing a low self-esteem. The effects of this behaviour cannot be stressed well enough, as it can even contribute to a workplace burnout.
The critical view is not only focused on the issue of ASB in the workplace, rather, it needs ample research to investigate the perpetrators themselves, in terms of their personality traits, their tendencies to perform ASB and the reason why they opt to behave in such a way. Understanding the perpetrator’s psychological wellbeing and personality traits has never been more prevalent in the attempt to curb anti-subordinate behaviours in the workplace. The so-called dark triad of personality consisting of Narcissism, Machiavellianism and a portion of Psychology, or as it is known, Corporate Psychopathy, belongs to the best-researched concepts of the dark side in organizations to date.
Narcissism Personality Disorder in leaders, in particular, remains one of researchers’ favourites to study. Narcissism, pathological self-absorption, was first identified as a mental disorder by Havelock Ellis in 1898. Narcissism is characterized by an inflated self-image and addiction to fantasy, by an unusual coolness and composure shaken only when the narcissistic confidence is threatened, and by the tendency to take others for granted or to exploit them. Ashton (2013) defined the personality disorder as “Grandiose” involvement—a tendency to consider oneself as a superior individual who deserves the admiration of others—and a selfish lack of concern for others’ needs.
Persons who display either narcissistic personality disorder or the narcissistic personality type are preoccupied with maintaining excessively positive self-concepts. (Vaknin, 2009) Narcissists value admiration and superiority more than being liked and accepted. Studies find that narcissists’ self-esteem depends upon the extent to which they feel admired. (Rhodewalt, 2018) Moreover, narcissists pursue admiration from others by attempting to manipulate the impressions they create in others. They make self-promoting and self-aggrandizing statements and attempt to solicit regard and compliments from those around them. They also respond with anger and resentment when they feel threatened by others. They are more likely to respond aggressively on such occasions and derogate those who threaten them, even when such hostile responding jeopardizes the relationship. The eagerness to be superior and admired by others causes narcissists to mistreat or abuse the relationship with co-workers, subordinates, any party that is under their work command. The arrogance and hostility shown by narcissists and most important, their striving to self-enhance at the expense of the subordinates costs them the friendship and coolness of a working relationship. They tend to take advantage of others in order to feel superior, which precludes the ability to develop a long-lasting relationship.
The question here still remains: If Narcissism is associated with Dark leadership traits, then why do many of the world leaders in the past and today have high levels of narcissism in their personality?
Throughout history, narcissists have always emerged to inspire people and to shape the future. When military, religious, and political arenas dominated society, it was figures such as Napoléon Bonaparte, Mahatma Gandhi, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt who determined the social agenda. (Maccoby, 2004) But from time to time, when business became the engine of social change, it, too, generated its share of narcissistic leaders. In an age of innovation, there is no substitute for a narcissistic leader. The absence of emotional intelligence significantly required for a leader in an army cadet is an indicator of a narcissistic leader, attributing to the toxic environment and distinguishing of psych morale of subordinates. (Doty and Fenlason, 2013) A narcissist will not be bothered to cater to the emotions of others, especially subordinates who rank below their position.
Narcissistic leaders are often skilful orators, and this is one of the talents that makes them so charismatic. Yet this charismatic gift is more of a two-way affair than most people think. Although it is not always obvious, narcissistic leaders are quite dependent on their followers—they need affirmation, and preferably adulation. Charisma becomes a double-edged sword- it fosters both closeness and isolation.
Dissent is not tolerated by excessive narcissists. Due to this, narcissist leaders can be extremely abrasive with employees who doubt them or especially with subordinates who are tough enough to fight back. A classic example would be Steve Jobs, who publicly humiliates and degrades subordinates. Those who are not tough enough to stand up to a narcissistic leader usually quits and moves elsewhere, leading to the increasing turnover ratio of the organization. Although narcissistic leaders often say teamwork is key, what they actually mean in practice is that they want a group of yes-men. More independent-minded subordinates leave or are pushed out- suffering from a psychological scar deeply engrained as they were targets of mistreatment by their leaders. Narcissistic leaders can either be extremely successful at the expense of others, as they are known to constantly lose tempers with subordinates especially if they’re positioned at the top levels of the organization. Their paranoia in becoming the best of the best ostracizes and isolates them from being a leader whom is admired, respected, followed and loved by subordinates. The more severe their narcissism is, the lesser they care for the wellbeing of subordinates, by openly humiliating, mistreating and degrading subordinates who are not the exact mirror image of their vision, goals and dreams.
It is important to note that Narcissists are not always classified as negative, in cases like Jack Welch and George Soros, both were examples of productive narcissists. While they were creative and brilliant strategists, they also had to be risk takers and oftentimes, taking a risk involves using charms to convert the masses with the rhetoric displayed by both. It depends on how the narcissistic leaders prevent self-destruction at their own hands, however difficult it is to change a narcissistic quality among leaders in the competitive business world, there are many positive aspects to working for a narcissistic leader. Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon, who is known to be very grandiose and to have an air that suggests active self-promoting, did not manage to bring the company to the ranks of billions of profits without the support and backbone of his subordinates. In this light of argument, Narcissism is considered the most adaptive and desirable construct among the three dark triads, which might explain the least significance towards ASB occurrence.
- Ashton, M. (2013). Personality Disorders. Individual Differences and Personality. [online] (2), pp.179-197. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780124160095000086 [Accessed 6 May 2018].
- Doty, L. and Fenlason, M. (2013). Narcissism and Toxic Leaders. [ebook] United States of America: MILITARY REVIEW. Available at: http://www.armyupress.army.mil/Portals/7/military-review/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20130228_art012.pdf [Accessed 26 May 2018].
- Maccoby, M. (2004). Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2004/01/narcissistic-leaders-the-incredible-pros-the-inevitable-cons [Accessed 26 May 2018].
- Rhodewalt, F. (2018). narcissism | Definition, Origins, Pathology, & Behavior. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/science/narcissism [Accessed 24 May 2018].
- Vaknin, S. (2009). What is Narcissism?. [online] Mental Health Matters. Available at: https://mental-health-matters.com/what-is-narcissism/ [Accessed 24 May 2018].