A great deal has been written about the consequences of narcissism. Likewise, there is no end of examples of narcissistic leaders in literature. But what if the milk has been spilled and the narcissistic boss has managed to get inside the organization; what should be done?
Many smart narcissists are naturally drawn to management positions where they can realize their leadership motivation, ambition and need to take the center stage. This is why many good leaders have a smidgen of narcissism in their personality.
However, narcissism also has its darker side, which can go too far and poison the organization. The easiest way to prevent pathological narcissists snaking their way into the company is personal assessment.
And I will say also this even at the risk of advertising: The best way to recognize this danger in advance is a psychological, carefully conducted personal assessment process. Even that is not a 100% surefire method, but when conducted by a professional evaluator it is more accurate than any other screening method.
However, sometimes recruiters do not want to pay for the assessment, and gut feeling leads them down the drain. Sometimes recruitment decisions are made heedless of the psychologist's warning. At other times, laypersons misinterpret the results of psychological tests.
How to proceed when the damage has been done?
The easiest case is when the manager is young and their narcissistic characteristics are only germinating. At this stage, the restraining effects of the community's feedback, career development and other methods can nip narcissism in the bud.
Even if the characteristic itself may be largely hereditary and unchanging, the behavior caused by it is always regulated by the environment. When the CEO starts losing self-control, the environment may intervene and remind them of the realities. In this case, the unpleasant sides of narcissism may never be realized.
The other option is more unpalatable. Little by little negative feedback is silenced, critics are replaced with toadies and the power of the leader grows, all of which will eventually lead to catastrophe. The management team or the board – or what is left of them – will completely identify with the narcissistic leader, lose control for good and drive the company straight down the pan.
This risk increases the more senior the leader is – as the cliché goes the past is no guarantee for the future. Historical achievements of long-time leaders are often given too much of a role. The danger is that in the glow of past glories the normal feedback mechanisms, such as 360 assessments, psychological audits and other types of critical evaluation methods, will disappear.
Kets de Vries* hit the nail on the head when he said: “Combining the roles of CEO and chairman in one person is an invitation to disaster. There are very few leaders who can resist the siren call of this sort of power.”
While narcissists themselves cannot be changed, the environment often can. One way is to train the people around the leader to recognize the pathological side of narcissism. A board or other controlling body that has gone through training can monitor the situation regularly.
This can made more effective through various reward systems and decentralization of power. Megalomaniac behavior, humiliation of key personnel and ruining of the work atmosphere must be made sufficiently difficult. Regular feedback, distribution of the powers of decision and strong and correctly elected board can steer potentially danger activities to benefit the company.
Still, there are situations, where no message gets through. A difficult narcissistic leader can make each problem look like it is someone else's fault. All steering is repelled, no matter how justified it is. In this case, no feedback or corrective mechanism works.
Ask for professional help
The last and the most radical alternative is external intervention. For example, an experienced leadership coach or a psychotherapist can steer the situation back to being bearable. However, this also puts the external party under enormous pressure. The coach's strong psychological expertise and experience of personality disorders help the intervention.
However, in the worst case intervention may be more detrimental than beneficial. A skilled narcissist may manage to get the professional help to join his fan club. This means that the external party will start to believe, that in fact all the problems are caused by the leader's operating environment. At this stage, the game is probably already lost.
A hopeless case is someone who does not believe in any kind of feedback, does not want to limit his power and does not listen to outside help. In the best case, this kind of story ends in the resignation of the miscreant, in the worst case in the fall of the company.
Consequently, the answer to the question posed in the heading is a narcissist can be tamed but not always. The worst cases must be recognized in advance because the damage cannot undone later.
*Manfred Kets de Vries, The Leader on the Couch