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Monday, May 1, 2023

Take your ethics and shove it! Narcissists' angry responses to ethical leadership

Fox, F. R., Smith, M. B., & Webster, B. D. (2023). 
Personality and Individual Differences, 204, 112032.


Evoking the agentic model of narcissism, the present study contributes to understanding the nuanced responses to ethical leadership that result from the non-normative, dark personality trait of narcissism. We draw from affective events theory to understand why narcissists respond to ethical leadership with feelings of anger, which then results in withdrawal behaviors. We establish internal validity by testing our model via an experimental design. Next, we establish external validity by testing our theoretical model in a field study of university employees. Together, results from the studies suggest anger mediates the positive relationship between narcissism and withdrawal under conditions of high ethical leadership. We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of our findings.

From the Introduction:

Ethical leaders model socially acceptable behavior that is prosocial in nature while matching an individual moral-compass with the good of the group (Brown et al., 2005). Ethical leadership is defined as exalting the moral person (i.e., being an ethical example, fair treatment) and the moral manager (i.e., encourage normative behavior, discourage unethical behavior), and has been shown to be related to several beneficial organizational outcomes (Den Hartog, 2015; Mayer et al., 2012). The construct of ethical leadership is not only based on moral/ethical principles, but overtly promoting normative communally beneficial ideals and establishing guidelines for acceptable behavior (Bedi et al., 2016; Brown et al., 2005). Ethical leaders cultivate a reputation founded upon doing the right thing, treating others fairly, and thinking about the common good.

As a contextual factor, ethical leadership presents a situation where employees are presented with expectations and clear standards for normative behavior. Indeed, ethical leaders, by their behavior, convey what behavior is expected, rewarded, and punished (Brown et al., 2005). In other words, ethical leaders set the standard for behavior in the organization and are effective at establishing fair and transparent processes for rewarding performance. Consequently, ethical leadership has been shown to be positively related to task performance and citizenship behavior and negatively related to deviant behaviors (Peng & Kim, 2020).

This research examines how narcissistic individuals respond to ethical leadership, which is characterized by fairness, transparency, and concern for the well-being of employees. The study found that narcissistic individuals are more likely to respond with anger and hostility to ethical leadership compared to non-narcissistic individuals. The researchers suggest that this may be due to the fact that narcissists prioritize their own self-interests and are less concerned with the well-being of others. Ethical leadership, which promotes the well-being of employees, may therefore be perceived as a threat to their self-interests, leading to a negative response.

The study also found that when narcissists were in a leadership position, they were less likely to engage in ethical leadership behaviors themselves. This suggests that narcissistic individuals may not only be resistant to ethical leadership but may also be less likely to exhibit these behaviors themselves. The findings of this research have important implications for organizations and their leaders, as they highlight the challenges of promoting ethical leadership in the presence of narcissistic individuals.