Narcissistic Bosses: The Right Dose Makes the Difference
When I talk about my research on narcissism in leadership, people often come around with examples from their own work lives: "I know someone you could study," "My supervisor is a really good example." Then I mainly ask them two questions: "How do you know whether your boss is narcissistic?" and "Do you still enjoy working with your perceived-to-be narcissistic boss?"
If by now you are also thinking about examples from your own work life, you can ask yourself the same questions. The answers usually vary from person to person and with our latest study we can explain why.
How Do You Know Whether a Boss is Narcissistic?
Narcissism is a non-clinical personality trait that is stronger in some people and weaker in others. There are two types of narcissism: grandiose and vulnerable. Vulnerable narcissism includes strong feelings of insecurity and distrust and is for this reason not often associated with leadership positions. In our study, we focused on grandiose narcissism.
Grandiose narcissistic individuals often climb to higher positions and become leaders. There are also some famous and successful people who are believed to have such tendencies, for example, Steve Jobs and Donald Trump.
Grandiose narcissism has two main aspects. First, narcissistic admiration includes grandiose fantasies about oneself, a striving for uniqueness, and charming behaviors, all with the goal of gaining admiration and validation from others. For example, supervisors high on this aspect would think of themselves as great leaders and be able to gain the attention and admiration of their employees by presenting themselves in a confident and charming way.
Second, narcissistic rivalry includes the devaluation of others, a striving for supremacy, and aggressive behaviors to fulfill the superior feelings of the grandiose individual. Supervisors high on this aspect would think that their employees are less worthy and talented and react angrily when their grandiose self-views are threatened by others (for example, when an employee criticizes their work).
So, there are two components of grandiose narcissism with different consequences for interactions at work. Rivalry is characteristic for higher degrees of grandiose narcissism and is linked to more social conflict. Admiration is linked to social success and characteristic for smaller degrees of grandiose narcissism. So being an employee of a narcissistic boss does not necessarily mean that you can't enjoy working with them, because it should depend on the degree of grandiose narcissism.
Do People Still Enjoy Working with a Narcissistic Boss?
In our study with 640 supervisors and 1,259 followers, we asked followers how satisfied they are with their direct supervisor and supervisors filled out a narcissism questionnaire which also measures the two narcissistic subdimensions, admiration and rivalry. Our results showed that there is an inverted U-shaped relationship between supervisors' grandiose narcissism and followers' satisfaction with their boss. This means that follower satisfaction is highest at a small dose of narcissism, while both too little and too much narcissism in leaders are not beneficial for follower satisfaction.
How can we explain this? If narcissism is too low, supervisors lack the capacity to be self-confident and gain the admiration and trust of their subordinates. If narcissism is too high, supervisors express too much rivalry in the form of reactive anger if they are criticized and are looking and talking down on their subordinates. In both cases (too low and too high narcissism) subordinates are less satisfied with their boss.
But, when supervisors have a small dose of narcissism, which means that narcissistic admiration is more present, employees can instill trust in their supervisor's capabilities as a leader and can admire them. This boosts satisfaction.
This was also reflected in our results, as we found that admiration already occurred at low levels of narcissism and was positively related to satisfaction, whereas rivalry occurred at higher levels and was negatively related to satisfaction.
In conclusion, the answers to my questions "How do you know whether your boss is narcissistic?" and "Do you still enjoy working with your perceived-to-be narcissistic boss?" depend on how narcissistic the boss is. If a boss is highly narcissistic, employees would answer that their boss gets angry at being criticized and does not recognize the efforts of their employees. Employees would not enjoy working with such a boss. If a boss is just slightly narcissistic, employees would answer that their boss is charismatic and is qualified to be in the leadership position. Such employees would be more satisfied than employees of a highly narcissistic boss.
For Further Reading
Blickle, G., Böhm, F., & Wihler, A. (2023). 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. Personality and Individual Differences. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2023.112230
Franziska Böhm is a PhD student at the University of Bonn in Germany. She studies narcissism in leadership and careers.