Narcissistic bosses stymie knowledge flow, cooperation inside organizations

Narcissism is a prominent trait among top executives, and most people have seen the evidence in their workplaces.

These individuals believe they have superior confidence, intelligence and judgment, and will pursue any opportunity to reinforce those inflated self-views and gain admiration. According to new research from the University of Washington, narcissism can also cause knowledge barriers within organizations.

When different units in the same company share information, it boosts performance and creates a competitive advantage. Narcissists hinder this knowledge transfer due to a sense of superiority that leads them to overestimate the value of internal knowledge and underestimate the value of external knowledge.

“Many big companies are what one would describe as multi-business firms, an organizational form where you have a corporate parent and subsidiary units,” said co-author Abhinav Gupta, associate professor of management in the UW Foster School of Business. “The financial logic for why these firms exist is so that knowledge and skills that reside in one unit can be used in another unit.”

But units don’t work with each other as much as companies would like, Gupta said. The study, published April 4 in the Strategic Management Journal, revealed that certain personality traits of executives — specifically narcissism — impede the flow of information.

“Narcissism affects people’s desire to be distinctive,” Gupta said. “It’s correlated by people wanting glory for themselves. We hypothesized that business-unit heads that have those traits would be the ones to say, ‘We don’t want to work with you. We have sufficient skills and knowledge and abilities that we will work independently.’ That was very strongly borne out based on our research design.”

The authors surveyed business units of a headhunting company in China that helps organizations recruit talent and search for technical personnel. These units must share knowledge about building talent pools, identifying skills and persuading prospects to accept offers.

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