So sue me: Why narcissistic CEOs can get their firms in legal trouble

Research by Berkeley Haas Prof. Jennifer Chatman shows that narcissistic CEOs are more likely to engage in protracted lawsuits—and are no more likely to win.

Berkeley Haas research found narcissistic CEOs more likely to engage in lawsuits.

In the classic myth of Narcissus, a handsome hunter falls in love with his reflection in pool. Unable to tear himself away, he wastes away and dies. In business, the real problem with excessive self-regard comes less from inaction than from reckless action—such as plunging into the dangerous waters of litigation.

“People who exhibit high levels of narcissism can make charming, extroverted leaders who are bold in taking risks and persisting against formidable odds,” says organizational culture and leadership expert Jennifer Chatman, Paul J. Cortese Distinguished Professor of Management at the Haas School of Business. “The downside is they are overconfident and tend to focus on the potential benefits and minimize the costs of risky actions. One manifestation of this is that narcissistic CEOs are more likely to lead their organizations into court.”

The dark sides of narcissism

Prof. Jennifer Chatman
Prof. Jennifer Chatman

In a new paper published in The Leadership Quarterly, Chatman and her colleagues found that narcissistic CEOs are significantly more likely to engage their firms in lawsuits and less likely to settle cases. The paper, co-authored by Stanford’s Charles O’Reilly (Berkeley MBA 71 and PhD 75) and UC Berkeley researcher Bernadette Doerr, is part of a series of four studies that examine the effects that narcissistic leaders have on their organizations.

“It’s true that some level of narcissism can help a leader succeed,” Chatman says. “But there are some very real problems with excessive narcissism that can have drastically negative consequences for companies.”

Those dark sides—according to a growing body of research—include a greater tendency to cross ethical lines, such as engaging in financial fraud or tax avoidance, as well as toxic behaviors such as aggression, bullying, or sexual harassment. In an earlier study, Chatman and her colleagues found that narcissistic CEOs also command significantly higher salaries, winning over boards with their confidence of success, and that the gap between narcissistic CEOs’ compensation and those of their top management teams widened over time.

Employees rate their CEOs

Past research has characterized narcissism with such traits as a sense of personal superiority, overconfidence, a desire for power and admiration, a willingness to manipulate others for personal gain, and an inclination toward hostility when faced with criticism. To gauge the narcissism of CEOs, Chatman and her colleagues went straight to those most likely to feel its effects: their employees. Surveying a sample of 250 employees from 32 of the largest publicly traded US hardware and software firms, the researchers asked employees to rate how much on a scale of 1 to 7 their bosses were “arrogant,” “egotistical,” “temperamental,” “extroverted,”and other adjectives that describe narcissistic personalities.

In addition, the researchers cross-referenced these scores with other measures, such as the number of times CEOs used first-person pronouns in letters and the size of their signatures—both measures associated with narcissism—in order to develop a narcissism score for each executive.

Chatman and her colleagues then correlated these numbers with the number and length of lawsuits each firm noted in its annual report. They found that CEOs who were rated as more highly narcissistic led firms that were more likely to be named as defendants in a lawsuit. Lawsuits involving narcissistic CEOs also lasted longer, implying that those leaders were less willing to settle suits quickly—even though they were no more likely to win them.

Why do narcissistic CEOs engage in lawsuits?

In order to better understand why narcissistic CEOs were more likely to become involved in lawsuits, Chatman and her colleagues also ran two experiments. They used a personality test to gauge participants’ degree of narcissism and then they randomly assigned them to imagine one of two different scenarios: what would they do if they were a CEO launching a new product, and the company’s lawyers said there was either low chance or a high chance they would be sued?

The researchers found a striking difference between those who scored low on narcissistic traits and those who scored high. When the chances of being sued were 20 percent, the narcissists and non-narcissists were equally likely to proceed. Yet when told there was an 80 percent chance of being sued, the narcissists were almost three times as likely to go forward with the launch, with about 62 percent saying they’d proceed.

“Narcissists appear to be both less sensitive to high risk and less likely to listen to advice from expert advisors, especially when there’s a chance of a high payoff,” says Chatman. “Further, this greater propensity for risk reflects narcissists’ confidence in their own judgment and suggests that they may be more likely to engage in extremely risky behavior.”

In another experiment, the researchers found a similar pattern in participants’ likelihood of settling a lawsuit. When told the risk of losing was high, 79 percent of non-narcissistic individuals were willing to settle, while only 40 percent of the narcissists said they’d settle.

Harmful to the bottom line

Taken together, Chatman and her colleagues’ research joins a growing body of literature that shows that narcissism isn’t merely an annoying personality trait that carries with it some ancillary benefits; rather, it can be dangerous to a company’s long-term stability and bottom line.

“We already know that most people—and even the boards of directors who hire CEOs—confuse strong leadership attributes and some of the key attributes of narcissists, such as grandiosity and overconfidence, so CEOs are significantly more likely to be higher in narcissism,” Chatman says. “It’s important to pay attention to the difference, because narcissists appear to have a significant, and negative, impact on the organizations they lead.”

Chatman adds that boards should look for CEOs who have a track record of incorporating expert views into their own thinking, and those who can develop inspiring and strategically relevant visions that bring others along with them, and avoid hiring those with narcissistic personalities.


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