High inter-unit competition worsens the situation as narcissistic executives are concerned with their sense of superiority and uniqueness; however, high environmental complexity or dynamism can combat such negative effects as narcissistic executives can find a “cover” to learn.
By Sarah Steimer
Narcissism may focus on the self, but the effects can be wide-ranging — especially in a corporate environment. A new study published in Strategic Management Journal finds that this personality trait can hinder inter-unit knowledge transfer.
And it’s a big, important problem to counter: the researchers identified inter-unit knowledge transfer as a key approach for business units or subsidiaries to build capabilities, maintain competitive advantage, and improve firm performance.
So why are narcissistic executives less receptive to knowledge transfer? Lead author Xin Liu, an associate professor at Renmin Business School in Renmin University of China, gave two possible reasons. First, narcissistic unit heads may strongly believe that they have a superior knowledge stock, compared to executives in other units, and understand their unit’s problems better — leading them to believe others’ knowledge is less valuable. Second, these executives may believe that knowledge transfer could diminish their sense of superiority and uniqueness, causing them to decline to receive external knowledge in an attempt to preserve their image.
But there is good news: high environmental complexity or dynamism — such as challenging situations — give narcissists a reason to undertake external learning. Because their sense of self tends to be fragile, creating a situation where they can provide social accounts and justifications that preserve their sense of superiority makes them less likely to resist learning behaviors and new information.
“An environment characterized by complexity or dynamism is particularly suitable for providing such face-saving justifications or ‘cover’ for narcissists’ fragile self-esteem,” Dr. Liu says.
While ensuring the environment will make knowledge-transfer more likely, the study also points to the importance of managing narcissists, particularly when the firm is promoting or implementing knowledge transfer.
Liu, X., Zhang, L., Gupta, A., Zheng, X., & Wu, C. (2022). Upper echelons and intra-organizational learning: How executive narcissism affects knowledge transfer among business units. Strategic Management Journal. https://doi.org/10.1002/smj.3406.
Sarah Steimer is a Chicago-based writer and editor with experience in magazines, newspapers and multimedia projects. She has covered subject matter that spans local news, marketing, medicine, food and more.