Speaking Up to the “Emotional Vampire” – A conservation of resources perspective

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Author Information : Joel B. Carnevale (Syracuse University)
Lei Huang (Auburn University)
Peter Harms (University of Alabama)

Year of Publication : Journal of Business Research (2018)

Summary of Findings : Consistent with the view of narcissists as "emotional vampires," our findings demonstrate that narcissistic leadership drains employees’ work energy, and weakens their ability to speak up about work related issues; however, these effects are mitigated when narcissistic leaders are accountable to their team.

Research Questions : Does narcissistic leadership consume employees' work energy and further reduce their ability to offer constructive suggestions to improve the work unit?

Can leader's sense of accountability for their team lessen their harmful impact on employee work energy and voice behavior?

What we know : Narcissistic leadership appears to be an important form of leadership capable of impacting employees' ability to thrive and feel energized at work. Despite being compared to "emotional vampires" - those individuals who expect others to devote their time and energy catering to their needs while providing little to no support in return - research examining the impact of narcissistic leadership on employee well-being and outcomes remain scant.

Novel Findings : Prior work has focused on narcissistic leaders overt harmful characteristics, such as their sensitivity to criticism, belittling nature and tendencies toward anger and aggression. Our results demonstrate that narcissistic leaders need not engage in such interpersonally hostile behaviors to harm their employees. Rather, as a result of their persistent need for admiration and attention coupled with their general lack of support for others, narcissistic leaders might simply be behaving in ways that increase employees’ cognitive and/or emotional load, leaving them with little energy to go above and beyond at work.

Implications for Practice : Our findings have important practical implications for organizations looking to curb the negative consequences of narcissistic leadership. For example, organizations considering the decision of whether to hire a talented narcissist will do well to ensure that they hold the narcissistic leader accountable for their team’s success. This can be done by setting clear expectations and standards, and communicating the consequences for failing to meet these expectations.

In addition to recruitment, our research can also inform organizational training practices that can help narcissistic leaders become more aware of the impact their behavior is having on their team. Our results suggests that there are circumstances under which narcissistic leaders may be somewhat aware of the emotionally draining impact they have on their employees and may regulate their behavior to avoid this impact. Although narcissistic leaders tend to become defensive in the face of constructive criticism, they may be willing to accept feedback if they believe it will lead to outcomes they desire.

Abstract : Although narcissists are commonly compared to “emotional vampires” who drain others of their energy, research examining the impact of narcissistic leadership on employee well-being and outcomes remains scant. Drawing from conservation of resources (COR) theory, we theorize that narcissistic leadership consumes employees’ emotional and cognitive resources, thus negatively affecting their work energy and voice behavior. Moreover, we further investigate how leader team-oriented accountability, which helps to reduce narcissistic leaders’ self-serving tendencies, moderates this negative indirect effect. Three-wave survey data collected from 357 employees working at a large consulting firm (Study 1) and experimental data collected from 129 working professionals (Study 2) both provided support for the negative indirect effect of narcissistic leadership on employees’ voice via their work energy. Additionally, this negative indirect effect is significant only when leaders are not accountable towards their team and that such negative indirect effect becomes non-significant when leaders exhibit high team-oriented accountability.

Consistent with the view of narcissists as “emotional vampires,” our findings demonstrate that narcissistic leadership drains employees’ work energy, and weakens their ability to speak up about work related issues; however, these effects are mitigated when narcissistic leaders are accountable to their team.

Joel Carnevale
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Joel Carnevale

Joel Carnevale teaches management and organizational behavior courses. His research interests include employee ethicality and prosocial behavior, including within a leadership context. He also researches neuroimaging technology (e.g. fMRI) as it applies to ethical decision-making and prosocial behavior. He earned a B.S. in economics and MBA from Radford University in Radford, Virginia, and a Ph.D. in management, focused on organizational studies, strategy and change from the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business at Auburn University.
Joel Carnevale
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