an employee enduring abusive supervision due to his boss's narcissistic rivalry

Otto Friedrich University Researcher Explains The Dangers Of 'Narcissistic Rivalry' In The Workplace

Researcher Iris K. Gauglitz discusses how narcissistic rivalry can lead to abusive supervision and offers solutions for employees and organizations.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 22, 2024

A new study published in the Journal of Business Ethics found that competitive streaks in narcissistic leaders can lead to abusive employee supervision, and aims to uncover the triggers and motives behind such actions.

I recently spoke to the lead author of the study, Iris K. Gauglitz of Otto Friedrich University's Department of Psychology, to discuss abusive supervision and narcissistic rivalry in leaders, and explored ways organizations and employees can address these issues and protect themselves. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to study narcissistic rivalry in the context of abusive supervision?

The inspiration behind our study stemmed from the recognition of the profound impact that abusive supervision has on both employees and organizations. The detrimental effects of such behavior require a deeper understanding of its underlying causes.

Literature indicates that leader narcissism, characterized amongst others by a lack of empathy and an antagonistic orientation, can precede abusive supervision. Specifically, the dimension of narcissistic rivalry, as outlined in the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Concept, has been identified as a significant predictor of abusive supervision.

Despite this association, the specific conditions under which leaders with high levels of narcissistic rivalry engage in abusive supervision are not clear.

Our study aimed to not only reaffirm the connection between narcissistic rivalry and abusive supervision, but also to delve deeper into the situational triggers and underlying reasons for such behavior.

By doing so, we sought to provide a more nuanced understanding of when and why leaders predisposed to narcissistic rivalry might resort to abusive supervision, thereby contributing to the broader discourse on preventing such detrimental leadership behavior.

How would you define narcissistic rivalry in leaders?

Narcissistic rivalry among leaders is conceptualized within the framework of the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Concept, as proposed by Back and colleagues in 2013. This concept delineates how narcissists pursue the overarching goal of maintaining grandiose self-views, employing distinct social strategies to achieve this.

Narcissistic admiration represents a self-enhancing strategy characterized by efforts to stand out, grandiose fantasies, and charming behaviors. On the other hand, narcissistic rivalry embodies a self-defending strategy, marked by a pursuit of supremacy, a tendency to devalue others, and aggressive behaviors.

These strategies lead to divergent social and workplace outcomes; while narcissistic admiration may be associated with social success, narcissistic rivalry often results in social failure.

In our research, we underscored this distinction by demonstrating that only leaders high in narcissistic rivalry (and not those high in narcissistic admiration) are more likely to engage in abusive supervision.

Interestingly, this finding was substantiated also through self-reports from supervisors, who, when high in narcissistic rivalry, acknowledged their previous engagement in abusive behaviors.

How can organizations identify leaders with high narcissistic rivalry traits early on, and are there specific behaviors or signs to watch out for?

Identifying leaders with high narcissistic rivalry traits presents a unique challenge for organizations, primarily because narcissistic individuals often initially come across as charismatic and engaging. It's typically over time that their more detrimental tendencies, such as narcissistic rivalry, become apparent. This delayed revelation makes it difficult to detect such traits through standard personnel selection processes.

To address this challenge, organizations could adopt best practices in personnel selection, and combine methods of professional aptitude diagnostics–including interviews, psychological testing, and observational methods–to gain a more rounded understanding of an individual's personality and behavior. Such a multi-faceted approach could include the following:

  • In-depth behavioral interviews. Conducting thorough interviews that delve into past behaviors and decision-making processes can reveal patterns indicative of narcissistic rivalry, such as a tendency to take undue credit or deflect blame.
  • Psychometric testing. Utilizing well-validated personality assessments that measure traits associated with narcissism can help identify potential red flags. However, it's important to ensure these tests are legally compliant and appropriate for the workplace. Additionally, while there exists a specific questionnaire designed to assess narcissistic rivalry, as per the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Concept, its direct application in a workplace context might be limited due to legal considerations and the fact that it hasn't been specifically adapted for the work environment.
  • 360-degree feedback for current leaders. For internal promotions, gathering feedback from a wide range of colleagues, subordinates, and supervisors can provide a balanced view of an individual's interpersonal skills and leadership style.
  • Reference checks. Asking for and thoroughly checking references allows organizations to inquire about previous job performance and interpersonal interactions, which can be telling of narcissistic rivalry traits.
  • Observation of group dynamics. Observing how candidates interact in group settings, such as during assessment centers or group discussions, can provide insights into their leadership style, including how they handle conflict and collaboration.
  • Training for interviewers and HR professionals. Educating those involved in the hiring process about the subtleties of narcissistic rivalry and how it may manifest in professional settings can enhance their ability to spot these traits.

How can team members effectively communicate with narcissistic leaders to prevent adverse reactions or abusive behavior?

When communicating with leaders high in narcissistic rivalry, team members must be aware of these leaders' sensitivity towards anything that might challenge their grandiose self-view.

Such leaders can react aggressively or engage in abusive supervision when they feel threatened or perceive negative feedback as a slight to their self-view. This sensitivity stems from their constant need to protect and uphold their inflated sense of self-worth.

For instance, in our study, we found that leaders high in narcissistic rivalry were more likely to show abusive supervision in response to followers who showed organization-directed deviance or supervisor-directed deviance, partly because they wanted to hurt such followers.

In light of this, team members should approach communication with a strategy that minimizes perceived threats to the leader's ego. When it becomes necessary to provide negative feedback or address concerns, the feedback should, for instance, be framed as objectively as possible.

This involves focusing on specific behaviors or outcomes rather than personal attributes and suggesting constructive ways to move forward. Feedback should also be provided in private situations, and team members should avoid public embarrassment, which could be particularly threatening for leaders high in narcissistic rivalry.

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