Study: How One Narcissistic Leader Can Screw up the Culture

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What type of personality succeeds in business? In Jon Ronson’s book the Psychopath Test, he presents the idea that being a psychopath — someone who lacks remorse or empathy, who lies at will, who manipulates others — may actually be helpful in the business world, which may be why CEOs seem to be psychopaths at about four times the rate of the general population. He spends a good deal of time with people like “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, who achieved fame and fortune by taking over companies, ruthlessly firing people, and selling the companies for billions.

Does that mean psychopaths are good for businesses? Well, Dunlap definitely turned around some companies from losers to big winners, but inevitably people figured out that he was engaging in massive accounting fraud. The first company he was president of, a paper mill in Niagara Falls, reported a profit of $5 million in 1976. It turned out to actually be a $5.5 million loss. Dunlap didn’t let a little fraud get in his way, though, as he moved on to other companies where he did similar things. He ended up being very successful and died rich, but he nearly obliterated every business he touched.

I’m thinking about all of this because of a new paper I just read out of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Researcher Jennifer A. Chatman specializes in examining narcissism in the business world. Narcissists are different from psychopaths (but a person can be both). Narcissists by definition think extremely highly of themselves and devalue the people around them, expecting constant praise and attention while assuming that they are too good for things like apologies or rules and laws.

There’s a pervasive belief that in order to be successful in the business world you need to have a bit of narcissism. You have to believe in yourself even when others are telling you that you’re an idiot — like Elon Musk, for example. Chatman looks into whether or not beliefs like that are true, and thus far it seems like her research is saying “absolutely fucking not, narcissists are the worst.” Previous studies have suggested they’re overpaid and also tend to get their companies involved in more lawsuits, while not actually making the company more money, which are generally traits that are looked down upon by company leadership.

This most recent paper looked at how a narcissist changes the culture of the company they take over, by conducting five different studies. In study 1, they had 400 people on Mechanical Turk take surveys to determine their level of narcissism and how they feel about collaboration and integrity. They found that narcissists looked down on those traits.

In Study 2 they looked at 259 MBA students at (presumably) UC Berkeley. Upon enrollment in the program they asked each student to provide at least three references of former coworkers or colleagues. The researchers contacted the references and basically tried to figure out from them how the students rated on narcissism, then asked the students themselves how they felt about organizational cultures. Sure enough, students who scored higher as narcissists were less likely to value collaboration and integrity.

For the third study, they contacted employees at Fortune 1000 companies and asked about their CEOs and company culture. Again, CEOs that scored higher as narcissists seemed to have made a company culture that devalued collaboration and integrity.

In the fourth study they went back to Mechanical Turk and asked subjects to rate how likely they were to perform certain actions that would make a workplace more or less collaborative or full of integrity. Narcissists were less likely to punish coworkers for a lack of integrity, more likely to promote someone with a lack of integrity, and more likely to support policies that make a less collaborative workplace.

In the final study, 200 Mechanical Turk subjects were put into scenarios in which they had to report to a boss who was more or less narcissistic. They were asked how likely they would be to recommend collaborative policies, promote low-integrity colleagues, or report company violations to the CEO. What they found was that for subjects reporting to a narcissistic CEO in a work culture that’s low on integrity and collaboration, they were more likely to behave in low-integrity and low-collaboration ways. 

So what’s all this mean? Well, the researchers point out that a narcissistic CEO can really drastically fuck up the culture of a workplace by promoting unethical or amoral people, discouraging collaboration amongst employees, and ignoring violations of corporate policy. That, in turn, creates a sort of feedback loop where employees who would usually behave with integrity are suddenly convinced that there’s no point in doing so, and in order to fit in and get ahead they drop their integrity and collaborative spirit.

Companies with cultures like that tend to not do very well, so eventually the board may realize what’s happening and fire the CEO. But the problem, the researchers point out, is that once the CEO is gone the culture will persist unless and until someone actively tries to reverse the damage that the narcissist did.

Look, this isn’t a model study. The data is pretty messy, and conducting research on Mechanical Turk and college students is never going to tell us exactly what’s going on in the real world. But it is compelling, especially the study that surveyed actual employees at large companies. And now more than ever I think it’s critical to understand how a single narcissist in a leadership position doesn’t just come in and screw things up in the short term until you — I mean the board of directors — vote him out. That single narcissist is likely enacting policies and promoting people who create a culture that is larger than him. It’s not enough to just get rid of him if you want, say, a culture that values integrity and collaboration. Cleaning up his mess is going to take hard work, not just from the new president — or CEO — but from everyone in the organization. Everyone needs to come together to say…well, you know, I recently heard a guy named Jamie Harrison say something that sounds about right: “The first step in working with the other side is not call the other side nuts….Sometimes people come from different backgrounds and they see the world differently but that doesn’t make them bad because of it….How are we gonna work together? When I was the chair of the South Carolina Democratic party and my best friend was the chair of the Republican party. We worked together, we respected each other. That’s the foundation for how we get things done…We can do better, but we gotta change the leadership to do so.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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