It is the unspoken curse stalking corporate South Africa. Few people talk about it but many executives encounter it and may be vaguely – or acutely – aware of the danger to organisations and careers.
The potentially toxic issue is corporate narcissism and its personification, the corporate narcissist.
Psychologists, consultants and corporate head-hunters have been aware of the issue for many years, though it came into sharp focus internationally following the 2008 financial crisis as the egotism of some business leaders may have paved the way to the Great Recession.
Specialists describe corporate narcissism as a corporate culture characterised by excessive pride, leading to destructive behaviour and strategies that boost personal egos rather than a company’s long-term prospects.
It is often found in large firms, especially those with clear hierarchies as corporate narcissists favour structures that support their power and protect their position.
One chartered psychologist notes negative correlation with honesty and humility, yet positive correlation with openness and extroversion.
Translation? A corporate narcissist initially appears charming and open. He or she makes a great first impression and exploits it to win high ratings for performance. Sometimes performance can be impressive, but narcissists are likely to ride early successes for all they are worth to secure personal advantage.
Narcissists steal credit for the work of others and minimise the contribution of subordinates. Narcissists are manipulative and enjoy the trappings of success … the best office, first-class travel and accommodation, luxury cars and celebrity lifestyle.
A corporate narcissist may build a reputation as a stellar deal-maker and financial wizard. He (or she) is the corporate rainmaker with a knack for building a network of admirers and praise-singers.
Peers and subordinates often do the real work while the manipulator hogs the limelight. Those with a different perspective are marginalised.
Mistakes may be covered up and blame wrongly apportioned. Abuse and erosion of ethical values set in. Anyone challenging the narcissist is ostracised.
An ace manipulator undermines the self-esteem of others. Colleagues may find themselves working harder and harder as they are led to believe under-performance is their fault.
Three consequences may manifest:
- victims (frequently talented individuals) refuse to be victims any longer and quit, hurting organisational performance as staff turnover rockets
- victims become depressed and demotivated (health and work suffer)
- victims become whistle-blowers as egotism may lead to mis-statements of fact, even fraud (though raising a red flag may initially do more harm to whistle-blowers than narcissists who supposedly do no wrong).
The extent of the local challenge is not only apparent from anecdotal reports, but from feedback given by executives looking to leave seemingly successful organisations.
Upon close questioning, they reveal the angst, anger and frustration of working alongside corporate narcissists in several sectors.
There is some good news.
International experience shows individuals can resist manipulation by setting clear boundaries and refusing to be sucked into the sycophantic culture that often surrounds a narcissist. You can’t change narcissists, but you can change your reaction to them by refusing to do their jobs or cover for them.
Corporate scandals and persistent organisational under-performance are also beginning to alert boards to risks posed by corporate narcissism.
Well-informed boards know self-confidence is good, self-absorption bad. With the help of skilled head-hunters, they are becoming better at spotting the difference.
Taking a good hard look is a good start if we wish to combat the toxic effects of corporate narcissism. It then becomes possible to build cohesive teams that deliver good, consistent results without glory-hunting… or narcissism.