Narcissistic leaders can bring down an organization even when they are trying to build it up. New research (Galvin, Lange, & Ashforth, 2015) uses extant organizational research findings to propose a new theory that may explain why this is so. They say that something called narcissistic organizational identification is to blame, and they demonstrate several ways that it happens and discuss how we can make sure this phenomenon doesn’t end up ruining businesses.
THE GOOD: ORGANIZATIONAL IDENTIFICATION
The authors begin with a discussion of organizational identification, which is when employees believe that their organization makes up an important part of their own self-identity. Because of this overlap between self and organization, employees who may be motivated to act toward their own self-interest will also act toward the self-interest of the organization. For example, they may engage in behavior that is likely to help the organization, such as organizational citizenship behavior, which means going above and beyond job requirements.
The authors describe four major conditions that lead people to identify with their organization. These antecedents include:
- Sense of control over the organization (which fosters good feelings)
- Feeling of psychological ownership (that the organization is at least partially “mine”)
- Sense that the organization is regarded highly by others (that it is something worthwhile)
- Others consider you to be fundamental to the organization (creates a sense of connectedness)
THE BAD: NARCISSISTIC ORGANIZATIONAL IDENTIFICATION
In this article, the authors propose a new type of organizational identification. Unlike conventional organizational identification, which is highly desirable, narcissistic organizational identification is just as bad as it sounds. It starts when narcissistic organizational leaders encounter the same four situations listed above. Instead of healthy and productive outcomes, it results in narcissistic organizational leaders considering their own personal identity as paramount to the organization’s identity. In other words, this kind of leader believes that he or she “is” the organization. This is bad, say the authors, because these leaders believe that serving their own interests is just as good as serving the organization’s interests—after all, they “are” the organization. Similarly, they say that narcissistic identification can make leaders feel self-important, grandiose, overly superior, or entitled. It’s not difficult to imagine how that could affect their propensity to behave unethically.
The authors explain that narcissistic organizational identification can encourage leaders to engage in theft or nepotism in an effort to better themselves. Although unethical, it may seem logically sound if they consider that their own success and status is the same exact thing as organizational success and status. And finally, these leaders may also attempt to mold a company so that it reflects their own personal values, because they first consider who “they are” when determining what the organization “should be.” If they are risk taking, they will drive the organization to risk taking.
PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
This article lays groundwork for an emerging area of research that will help us further understand the damage caused by narcissistic leaders. Influential organizational people may want to be on the lookout for narcissistic leaders, especially when exhibiting some of the signs mentioned in this article. It could be a sign of narcissistic organizational identification. This article also helps explain how some of these leaders may appear to be highly committed to their companies at the same time. Just because a CEO works very hard to build or lead an organization, does not mean that the same person will avoid unethical behavior that could damage the organization. This is especially so because the narcissistic leader may believe that acting out of self-interest is doing what’s best for the organization.
Although the authors admit that CEOs and other high level executive are most naturally at risk for narcissistic identification, they say that it could also affect lower level employees who lead a division or team within an organization. The detrimental effects of the narcissistic leader may be affecting workplaces in more places than we might initially think. This is another reason why continued research is necessary in this area. In the meantime, be on the lookout for the narcissist in power; he or she may even appear well-intentioned.
Galvin, B. M., Lange, D., Ashforth, B. E. (2015). Narcissistic Organizational Identification: Seeing Oneself As Central to the Organization’s Identity. Academy of Management Review, 40(2), 163-181.