- People high in narcissism feel the need to demonstrate their superiority over others.
- New research shows how narcissism can infect an individual's personality when they're put in leadership positions.
- The idea of "moral credit" can cause leaders to feel that they can engage in unethical behavior if those they lead behave as good citizens.
It’s well known that narcissists desire to feel superior, particularly if they have the grandiose form of this trait. As a result, they can become easily threatened by someone they perceive as a foe when that foe seems to be winning. Suppose you’re in the crosshairs of such an individual. In that case, you know this can be a painful position to occupy, especially if that threat becomes translated into behavior intended to make you doubt yourself.
Perhaps you were asked to give a presentation, remotely, to a group of people who you’re trying to impress. It may be that your boss invited you into a meeting of higher-level management to share a report that you just completed. Your invitation indicates that you will have 15 minutes at the end of their meeting to share your slides, ones you worked on for several weeks, to refine them to perfection.
As the agreed-upon time approaches, you’re ready to go, but the group isn’t ready for you. The 15 minutes have become ten by the time you’re allowed into the meeting. Instead of welcoming you, the boss proclaims, “Please get to the point immediately as we are almost out of time.” There go your first five slides. Then, to your horror, you get the dire warning that the internet connection is “unstable,” followed by complete loss of the connection. When you finally get re-connected, your boss “Zoom shames” you by implying that the unstable connection was your fault and your time is now up. Trying to hold on to your composure, you try to make one last point before you’re unceremoniously shown the “door.”
Thinking back on all of this, it’s no surprise really that your boss acted this way. After all, you’ve been plowing along methodically as you gathered data for your report, even changing your entire approach when your boss gives you feedback that what you’re doing doesn’t make sense and needs to be overhauled.
You are reluctant to attribute their behavior to straight-out narcissism, but it’s hard not to wonder if this might be the case. You’re a highly competent, trained individual who knows what you’re doing. Could it be that your boss needs to make you feel small for them to feel better? Indeed, this is something your boss does not only to you but for the others in your workgroup. However, you also know there’s nothing you can do other than follow along and let yourself take the brunt of your boss’s abusive behavior, which only continues to escalate.
These scenarios take place in settings other than work, of course. You could be on a community volunteer committee, part of a neighborhood sports team or planning group, or a member of an extended family that often gets together. Whoever happens to be in charge or is at the top of the hierarchy could very easily engage in similar acts that threaten your feelings of self-worth.
Are You Inadvertently Feeding the Narcissist’s Behavior?
The idea that people who must work for or otherwise report to a narcissist only make things worse is behind a study in organizational psychology by M. Ghufran Ahmad and colleagues at the Lahore University Management Science (2021). As Ahmad et al. point out, it’s well known that leaders influence followers, but, In their words, “desirable follower behaviors, such as acts of citizenship, could cause leaders to feel emboldened to engage in undesirable behaviors” (p. 1374). By complying with your boss’s derogatory (if not unethical) behavior toward you, are you somehow only making things worse?
According to the theory known as “leader-member exchange,” leadership is a process that builds over time throughout the interactions between leaders and their followers. Although this process can benefit team-building, productivity, and personal well-being, there is a danger when the leader is someone whose personality leads them to take advantage of this exchange process. In the case of unethical behavior, the good behavior of the follower can provide the leader with “moral credit” that frees them to “engage in morally questionable acts when given the opportunity” (p. 1375). In other words, seeing their followers behave as good citizens leads these individuals to feel they have the license to be bad.
Ahmad et al. believe that narcissists would be particularly likely to gain this moral license from having ethical followers. As the authors note, “narcissistic leaders consider themselves to be unique and important, expect entitlements and special treatment, crave admiration and validation, and behave in an arrogant and exploitative manner (p. 1376)”. However, even someone who isn’t a narcissist, the Lehore-led team suggest, can enter a “narcissistic state” in which the situation brings out these exploitative tendencies. Someone can rise to a position of leadership based on the positive traits of extraversion and achievement motivation but once in that position, take on that narcissistic state due to the influence of situational factors, such as people treating them as special and following their instructions.
Putting the Leader-Member Exchange Theory to the Test
Across a series of a pilot study, two experiments, and a field study, Ahmad and his colleagues tested the hypotheses that leaders who feel narcissistic (again, that idea of a “state,” not a “trait”), will gain vicarious moral credit when those who work for them follow all the rules. As an example of how the Pakistani-led team measured moral credit, in the field study, they asked leaders to rate whether they engaged in such behaviors as conducting personal business on company time and passing along their own mistakes to their employees. The leaders also rated their perception of how well their employees conformed to organizational rules.
As the authors predicted, leaders who felt narcissistic were more likely to engage in their own morally dubious behavior when they perceived their employees to be good citizens; there was no such effect for leaders low in narcissism. Adding to this relationship was a heightened tendency for leaders to take moral credit when they reported feeling threatened and envious of those they led. In the words of Ahmad et al., “leaders may view followers who engage in organizational citizenship behaviors as threatening, and may respond to this threat by engaging in unethical deeds” (p. 1382).
As strange as this sounds, the findings imply that you pose a threat to the person leading you by simply enacting your role properly. What’s more, as shown in additional analyses, these effects were enhanced even further when the leader identified with the follower, perhaps making the perceived threat even more acute.
How You Can Overcome the Threats to Your Dignity
Based on the Lahore U. findings, it seems that the more you engage in the kinds of behaviors consistent with your role, the more you give the people who would like to cut you down a “moral license.” This presents a potential quandary. If you refuse to go along with a leader’s demands, you risk your position. Still, if you cater to them, you feed the leader’s ability to engage in such unethical behavior as making you feel inferior or taking the blame for the leader’s mistakes.
Returning to the Zoom call situation, what would this mean? Would you complain to everyone in the meeting that this treatment isn’t fair? Would you point out the unreasonableness of being blamed for a bad internet connection? Chances are that you wouldn’t feel very comfortable taking this route, at least at the moment.
Given that the more competent you seem, the more you pose a threat to the boss, you can’t even overcome the potential humiliation by drawing everyone’s attention to the high quality of your work. Engaging in passive-aggressive retaliation won’t work either.
Taking a page from the Ahmad et al. playbook, though, you can recover your image while also preventing this from happening in the future by seeking a sideways route out of the problem. Asking your boss if it’s okay to send your presentation around to everyone there would allow you to reclaim ownership of all your hard work. This is a reasonable request that would make the boss look unfair should they refuse you, and in the process, deduct some of the moral credit from their account. In the process, you need to avoid posing a threat or seeming unreasonable yourself.
In situations outside of work when this set of dynamics can play out, there is a difference in that the narcissists in those situations people can’t “fire” you. However, they can still make your life miserable should you challenge them. Instead, show in a non-threatening way that you’re just not going to go along with this behavior.
To sum up, it hurts when someone goes out of their way to belittle you, particularly when the stakes are high. Although you may not make that person less narcissistic, you can nevertheless find your pathway to regaining your sense of agency and self-respect.
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Ahmad, M. G., Klotz, A. C., & Bolino, M. C. (2021). Can good followers create unethical leaders? How follower citizenship leads to leader moral licensing and unethical behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(9), 1374–1390. https://doi-org/10.1037/apl0000839.supp (Supplemental)