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Feelings of unfair treatment trigger the worst in narcissistic leaders

Ryan Fehr

Ryan Fehr

Narcissistic leaders are particularly prone to act in their own self-interest when they feel that they are being treated unfairly. And the repercussions of this enhanced egoism are damaging to employees and organizations.

This according to a new study co-authored by Ryan Fehr, an associate professor of management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

But while the most destructive of self-serving behaviors are triggered by perceived inequities, the study also indicates that narcissistic leaders who feel respected, valued and fairly treated can actually display more altruistic behavior than their less-narcissistic peers.

“The effects of narcissism hinge upon how leaders feel they are treated by their organization,” Fehr says. “When leaders perceive that they are treated unfairly, they tend to lash out in a manner consistent with the notion of threatened egoism. On the other hand, when leaders feel that they are treated fairly, they appear to act in a less self-interested manner and, as a result, are more likely to get their followers to collaborate and constructively voice their opinions.”

The nuance of narcissism

Narcissist is a loaded term, a pejorative reserved for the most self-centered, solipsistic and vainglorious among us.

It’s true that narcissistic personalities have an inflated sense of self and a preoccupation with having that positive self-view continually reinforced.

But Fehr says that research has identified some organizationally positive traits as well. Narcissists emerge quickly into leadership roles, for instance. They also tend to be charismatic, persuasive, assertive and competitively aggressive (more likely, for instance, to acquire a competitor).

But if narcissism can be manifested in both destructive and constructive ways, there must be some external conditions that regulate this expression—triggering very different behaviors from the same narcissistic leader.

To find out, Fehr collaborated with Haiyang Liu, Jack Ting-Ju Chiang and Minya Xu of Peking University and Siting Wang of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “We wanted to offer a more nuanced perspective of narcissism,” Fehr says, “and explain why positive behaviors emerge in some situations and negative behaviors emerge in others.”

The researchers hypothesized that fairness—or, more accurately, the perception of fairness—might be a powerful regulator of the attitudes and actions of narcissistic leaders.

The importance of fairness

From comprehensive surveys of more than 200 leaders and 1,200 subordinates at a tech manufacturing company in southern China, Fehr and his colleagues were able to chart the connections between self-centered tendencies, feelings of fairness, leadership behaviors and employee reactions.

A clear pattern emerged. Narcissistic leaders who felt disrespected and unfairly treated by their organization—and especially their superiors—tended to act in their self-interest at the expense of their employees who, in turn, tended to be less collaborative, cooperative and helpful, and were more reluctant to speak their minds.

“Followers learn a lot about how to behave from watching their leaders,” says Fehr. “They get certain cultural norms, ideas of how we do things around here.”

But the study also showed that the effect was reversed when narcissistic leaders felt they were treated fairly.

“Narcissism magnifies the way an individual acts, in either direction,” Fehr adds. “This means that, under the right circumstances, a narcissistic leader can actually be more promotive of pro-social behaviors and employee voice than a less-narcissistic leader.”

He explains that a narcissist who feels respected and fairly treated can focus on attaining the admiration of employees. The resulting magnanimity is good for morale and encourages subordinates to work together and speak constructively—behaviors, research has shown, that make organizations more effective.

Don’t forget the middle manager

So, how can you get the best out of narcissistic leaders? The obvious solution is simply to treat them fairly.

This does not mean indulging every whim and gratifying every demand, Fehr says. Rather, he advises organizations to create cultures of fairness and transparency—and to explicitly demonstrate this fairness to a narcissistic leader when necessary.

The other key is to remember that an organization is made up of more than a chief executive and frontline employees. Middle managers are especially susceptible to feelings of inequity which lead to self-centered behavior and miserable employees.

“We focus so much on how CEOs and employees are feeling, but sometimes mid-level managers can get lost in the process,” Fehr says. “Organizations need to pay special attention to those mid-level leaders who may feel they are being treated unfairly by upper management or versus their peers.”

How do leaders react when treated unfairly? Leader narcissism and self-interested behavior in response to unfair treatment” was published in the November 2017 Journal of Applied Psychology.