When narcissist leaders silence organisations, the damage can be lethal by Karen Walker

A collective silence about leadership problems that are in plain sight arises when no-one dares to be the one who speaks the truth to the leader. Providing constructive feedback to a narcissistic leader is a courageous move. A common survival strategy for the group of people around such a leader is to stick together, and generally, say 'yes' or nothing at all.

Hans Christian Andersen gave his famous fable The Emperor's New Clothes a happy ending. "But he doesn't have anything on!" cried a little child, which caused the crowd to drop the pretense they could see the Emperor's non-existent new clothes. "He has nothing on!" shouted all the people at last, the spell of collective silence had been broken. Does this allegory apply to organisations silenced by a leader?

Dark side of leadership

Leaders who are irrational, overestimate their abilities, require excessive admiration, are exploitive, quick to take offense and are vindictive abound in literature on leadership, and exist in all walks of life. Leadership guru Manfred Kets de Vries in his illuminating article The Shadow Side of Leadership describes a number of dysfunctional leadership prototypes: the Narcissist, the Controller, the Depressive, the Abrasive, the Paranoid, the Hypomanic Charismatic and the Neurotic Imposter. Detailing behaviours that characterise these prototypes, saying the first step in dealing with dysfunctional leaders is being able to identify them.

As noted by Nancy Billias and Sivaram Vemuri in The Ethics of Silence: An Interdisciplinary Case Analysis Approach the cost to individuals who are unable to express feelings and thoughts as part of personal and group relationships is significant, "such pressure might lead to depression, resentment and anger." These emotions present at a societal level if one's voice or a group of voices, are not heard and recognised.

Just as there are costs to societies, organisations pay a price if its' members are silenced by dysfunctional leadership. In an interview with the Irish Times recently, How Malignant Narcissist Bosses Destroy Companies, de Vries points out that a level self-belief and confidence is a necessary trait for leaders but isn't positive if its extreme.

Hubris in leaders makes them unwilling to seek or accept advice from others, often leading to poor decisions.

Organisations with a Narcissist Leader miss out on the opportunities for growth and innovation that flow from the collective creativity and responsibility of open, vocal cultures.

If a CEO is a Narcissist Leader, can anyone do anything to change them?

Hans Christian Andersen's story ended with people finding their voice and telling the truth to the Emperor, but the Emperor "walked even more proudly, and the two gentlemen of the imperial bedchamber went on carrying the train that wasn't there." So no changing the behaviour of that Narcissist Leader!

Are employees responsible for speaking up and challenging their leader's dysfunctional behaviour?

De Vries doesn't believe that employees should be the ones to do so. Unlike the Emperor with no clothes CEOs do answer to others, their board and shareholders, De Vries holding boards to account.

“Most boards are far too lenient with control freaks, and one of the problems is that they are typically selected from the same stable,” De Vries says.

A Narcissist CEO informing the board of the results of employee engagement and experience feedback that criticised their behaviour, performance and decisions is never going to happen. Employees surviving working for a Narcissist Leader by holding fast to a 'silence is golden' rule when it comes to feedback are equally unlikely to break this rule when participating in engagement surveys. The promise of anonymity may not override employees' belief in the futility of providing honest feedback and the fear of vindictive actions criticism may provoke in the Narcissistic Leader. Safer not to 'poke the bear.'

One child's action enabled others to speak up in The Emperor's New Clothes, giving organisations a voice when silence is pervasive due to dysfunctional leadership is not so simple.

  • Enable the team responsible for employee experience to inform the board and leadership team of the real costs of not addressing dysfunctional leadership. Capture employee insights and feedback in multiple ways that connect behavioural and cultural issues not only to levels of employee motivation and engagement, measure their impact on the financial, productivity, customer experience, quality, innovation, brand, commercial value, social value and strategic performance of the organisation.
  • Who captures and delivers these insights and who receives these insights really matters. People independent of the organisation capture insights and provide unfiltered to the organisation's board and leadership Teams, also shared with the organisation.
  • Ensure board and leadership teams are recruited with skills and attributes of what De Vries describes as a combination of being authentic and open to learning, capable of listening and being challenged.
  • Evidence of desired leadership behaviours influence performance rewards for the board, executive and leadership roles.

Acknowledging Ram Vemuri's continuing vital contribution to these articles on the very complex and vast topic of silence.

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Karen Walker is an Advisor, Expert and Operative in Strategy Execution, the series of decisions and actions undertaken to turn strategic visions of organisations into reality. An evolving journey of understanding possibilities and using situational awareness to adapt tactics and goals to realise maximum value. 

A specialist in the casino and gaming industry, with extensive experience in the implementation of new and innovative practices and the establishment of greenfield operations, Karen’s career spans senior operational management and leadership, program director, project and change management, and business transformation lead roles, across a number of sectors.