Executive narcissism inhibits cross-unit cognition

Narcissistic executives make the units or subsidiaries they lead less receptive to knowledge from other units. The new research, published in the Strategic management review, explores the relationship between executive narcissism and inter-unit knowledge transfer. The authors find that the effects of narcissism are reduced when there is high environmental complexity or dynamism at play, because such extra-organizational predicaments give narcissists a reason to undertake external learning. However, these effects are reinforced when there is strong inter-unit competition, because such an intra-organizational predicament reinforces the distinction-seeking tendencies of narcissists.

“How to promote cross-unit knowledge transfer between different business units or subsidiaries within a multi-unit company is a key question that often intrigues senior managers in the parent company,” says lead author Xin Liu, associate professor at Renmin Business School in Renmin University of China. On the one hand, says Dr. Liu, “the parent company hopes to grow and expand its business quickly; but on the other hand, the parent company is not always able to provide detailed guidance to each business unit. If units share knowledge related to operations management, it improves business performance – but practice and research show that knowledge transfer between units is never easy.

The article, “Upper Echelons and Intra-Organizational Learning: How Executive Narcissism Affects Knowledge Transfer Between Business Units,” draws on existing literature on inter-organizational knowledge transfer and upper echelon theory. The research team focused on unit leader narcissism because it was identified as an important and fundamental personality trait of senior managers that affects both their strategic decisions and their organizational strategies.

The researchers used two field surveys with a two-wave multi-source survey design to test the hypotheses. The exploratory study collected data from all 52 business units of a Chinese company that designs charging systems and devices and provides charging services for electric cars, while the main study collected data from 118 business units of a headhunting company in China.

The studies proved their hypotheses, finding that narcissistic executives were more receptive to knowledge transfer when a higher level of environmental complexity or dynamism was present. Dr. Liu offered two theories as to why narcissism impedes knowledge transfer: First, narcissistic unit leaders may firmly believe that they have a greater stock of knowledge than managers in other units and that they better understand the problems of their unit. make them believe that the knowledge of others is less valuable. The second theory is that these executives may believe that knowledge transfer can diminish their sense of superiority and uniqueness, leading them to refuse to receive external knowledge in an effort to preserve their image.

“However…if they can offer social accounts and justifications that preserve their sense of superiority and avoid broadcasting feelings of weakness and vulnerability, narcissists are less likely to resist learning behaviors and new information. “, says Dr. Liu. “An environment characterized by complexity or dynamism is particularly suited to provide such justifications or ‘covering’ to save face from the fragile self-esteem of narcissists.”

The study shows that companies need to be aware of the crucial impact of unit leader narcissism when promoting or implementing knowledge transfer. But Dr Liu warns that multi-unit companies should be careful about using relative performance ratings or other similar practices that reinforce competitive intensity between units, because research shows that the negative effect of narcissism is amplified when there is strong inter-unit competition. . Instead, she suggests emphasizing the environmental complexity or dynamism of narcissistic unit leaders, as research suggests that the negative effects of unit leader narcissism are mitigated when there is environmental complexity or dynamism. raised.

the Strategic management review (SMJ), founded in 1980, is the world’s leading mass-impact journal for strategic management research. SMJ seeks to publish articles that pose and help answer important and interesting questions in strategic management, develop and/or test theory, replicate previous studies, explore phenomena of interest, examine and synthesize existing research and to assess the many methodologies used in the policy area. management field.

SMJ is published by the Strategic Management Society (SMS), an association of 3,000 scholars, professionals and consultants from 80 countries that focuses on developing and disseminating ideas about the strategic management process, as well as promoting contacts and exchanges. around the world. To learn more about SMS’s scientific and educational programs in strategic management, please visit www.strategicmanagement.net.


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