Why and When Narcissists Dismiss Advice

New research involving the UA's Eller College reveals that narcissism among leaders is harmful to decision making.
Nov. 20, 2015
Former UA doctoral student Edgar E. Kausel: "Research shows that the narcissism epidemic is at least as strong as the obesity epidemic."
Former UA doctoral student Edgar E. Kausel: "Research shows that the narcissism epidemic is at least as strong as the obesity epidemic."
UA professor Jerel Slaughter: "Organizations should take a closer look at who they are hiring and promoting."
UA professor Jerel Slaughter: "Organizations should take a closer look at who they are hiring and promoting."

How many times have you offered advice or suggestions to your boss, upper management or even a client, only to be ignored?

After a few times, it gets a bit annoying, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe understanding why can help. New research by the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management, the University of Chile and Kansas State University reveals that narcissism is an epidemic among leaders who are often mischaracterized as "confident."

In an article published this month by Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, the authors shared their findings from their study, which began in 2011. OBHDP publishes fundamental research in organizational behavior, organizational psychology, and human cognition, judgment and decision-making.

Led by Edgar E. Kausel, a former Eller doctoral student and an economics faculty member at the University of Chile, the study examined the relationship between narcissism and advice taking at both state and trait levels. In studies such as this, state levels refer to changes within people at different times as a result of contextual events. Trait levels refer to behavior and thoughts that are relatively stable over time.

Kausel and his team studied the mechanisms that explain why narcissists are dismissive of advice. In three studies, they found that narcissism and advice taking were negatively related, but only when measuring narcissism at the state level or when controlling for extroversion at the trait level.

"We also tested two mechanisms and found that confidence did not explain the relationship — disregard for others did," Kausel said.

In another study, participants were placed under accountability pressures. Results showed that when people expected to explain their decisions to others, it made them more humble.  As a result, they took more advice from others. However, narcissists were unaffected by this accountability pressure.

"Taken together, these results suggest that narcissists eschew advice not because of greater confidence, but because they think others are incompetent and because they fail to reduce their self-enhancement when expecting to be assessed," Kausel said.

Jerel Slaughter, a Robbins Professor of Management and Eller’s management and organizations department head, said business executives should take note of the study’s findings.

"A good leader will thoughtfully consider advice from supervisors, peers and subordinates, and do what’s best for the company," Slaughter said. "These findings show that organizations should take a closer look at who they are hiring and promoting."

Slaughter said businesses can implement tests to identify people with high levels of narcissism. "There also are development programs to help employees recognize and change their own behavior," he said.

Previous studies had found that the more narcissistic people were, the higher up they were in their job positions. "The paradox is that people who are highly narcissistic are more likely to be promoted. They tend to be extroverted and do well at selling themselves," Kausel said.

Narcissistic leaders also tend to take more risks.

"While not our research, there have been studies that show that CEOs tend to move forward with acquisitions that fail. We were interested in knowing why they took those risks and didn’t listen to others’ advice," Kausel said.

He said that previous research also shows that narcissism is widespread among younger employees who want everything right now.

"It is becoming an issue in the workplace. When employees don’t listen to each other and think about themselves more than the collective organization, it’s a problem," he said. "Research shows that the narcissism epidemic is at least as strong as the obesity epidemic, if not stronger."

However, there is hope. The research study also found that whereas people who were exposed to narcissistic leaders showed high levels of narcissism, those exposed to humble leaders showed low levels of narcissism.

"We think that’s good news and bad news," Kausel said. "It shows that anyone can be narcissistic, but the good news is that we can train people to think and behave differently."