People With Low Self-Esteem See Narcissistic Leaders as More Abusive

Here’s a trait you don’t necessarily want in your boss, or in any leader for that matter: high levels of narcissism.

According to a team of researchers in the Netherlands, narcissistic leaders are those who tend to be “self-absorbed and hold beliefs of entitlement and superiority.”

The researchers add that these leaders’ “aggressive tendencies in the face of criticism and inclinations to validate their self-worth by derogating others may lead others to perceive them as being abusive.”

But are narcissistic leaders necessarily abusive? Previous studies on this question have come back with mixed results. Apparently, whether narcissistic leaders are abusive depends on who you ask.

Looking at this situation, the researchers suggested a possible explanation: not everyone is equally likely to be on the receiving end of narcissistic leaders’ abusive behavior, and people don’t necessarily even agree on what behavior is abusive. In particular, people with low self-esteem might perceive narcissistic leaders as more abusive, and they might actually be more likely to experience abusive behavior because they are “easy targets.”

If this is the case, the researchers hypothesized, then out of all the people who follow narcissistic leaders, those with low-self esteem should be more likely to see these leaders as abusive.

They put their theory to the test in a study of 85 leaders and 128 followers from different environments. And they found that, indeed, leaders with high levels of narcissism tended to be rated as more abusive by people with low levels of self-esteem, but not by people with high levels of self-esteem.

On top of that, this perception had real effects on followers’ performance. A subsequent study showed that when followers saw their leaders as abusive, they performed worse and they were more likely to experience burnout.

These findings don’t answer the question of why followers with low self-esteem are more cognizant of narcissistic leaders’ toxic side. It’s possible, according to the researchers that followers with low self-esteem are more insecure and “more in need of approval from their supervisor.” It’s also possible, they say, that those with low self-esteem are actually more likely to become targets of narcissists’ abusive behavior.

In any case, the study sheds some light on why narcissistic leaders tend to bring out different opinions in different people. The experiences people have with these leaders seems to depend partly on their own levels of self-esteem, with followers who have lower self-esteem more likely to rate narcissistic leaders as abusive.

Image: Flickr/Daniel X. O’Neil