Do vertical organisations attract narcissists?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 - 19:46

By AIM Education & Training

Some people remember the phrase "employer of choice" from the dot com boom of the early '90s. In many advanced nations it was a time of low employment, where companies couldn't find candidates, let alone find the talent at the right price.

To beat other possible destinations, organisations would put on a show to woo their applicants. Free food, foosball tables, casual dress codes and other perks were used to entice talent to the organisation. However, when all the top companies (and even the little ones) began doing this, all it did was raise candidates' expectations.

Today we're seeing a similar arms race. Slides, gaming stations, in-house baristas and even office dogs prove that perks are making a real comeback. But do these even work? Can benefits make a company the employer of choice?

While quality leadership training can make a real difference, other perks are not always what people look for when they're approached for a role. In fact, new research reveals the impact organisational structure can have on the decision to sign on the dotted line.

Narcissists and hierarchy

In a recent research paper, investigators from Boston University and Cornell University found people who showed narcissistic tendencies had a greater desire to work at an entity characterised by vertical hierarchies. 

Narcissism can be defined as a personality trait related to exaggerated perspectives of self-worth, a sense of entitlement and a craving for authority. The research measured narcissistic tendencies through their agreement or disagreement with a series of statements. For instance, "I will be a success" or "I think I am a special person".

Researchers found that the people who exhibited narcissistic traits are more likely to seek out work in a hierarchical organisation in comparison to less narcissistic people. The investigators believe this is due to their belief in themselves to perform well and rise up the proverbial ladder. 

Interestingly, when participants were informed there would not be any open positions higher up the ladder, narcissists were less happy about working for the organisation than their non-narcissistic peers.

Extrapolating the data to a general perspective, narcissists prefer hierarchical organisations because they believe they can rise to the occasion and reach the higher ranks. The rewards and power hierarchies entice them in the same way a book would an intellectual. 

As such, narcissists are less eager to work in flatter organisations, where there are fewer high ranking positions to attain. But why is this important for business owners and CEOs?

Attracting top talent

While the saying "people are your most valuable asset" may be overused in the commercial and public sphere, the truism still lives strong. The value and significance of hiring and retaining top talent is essential for leading a business to success. 

One of the major reasons for this is the recent focus on innovation and technology. Contrary to popular belief, technology doesn't innovate, people do. Without the right staff, innovative pursuits - whether it's a transformational project focused on internal systems or the creation of new products - will lead to disaster. 

The research into narcissism offers management significant insight into, what Steven Hankin of McKinsey and Company would call, the war for talent. 

Commercial leaders need to be aware of the impact a firm's structure can have on the types and kinds of candidates attracted to an organisation. Additionally, it also impacts the retention of existing workers, such as experienced MBA graduates

This is of special importance as more and more commercial leaders are looking at flatter organisational structures to generate growth. The push for horizontal companies is driven by a number of research projects such as the 2010 Berkeley study into hierarchy, which shows less hierarchy can improve decision making and lead to more satisfied employees.

Take for instance online shoe and clothing store Zappos. It has used holacracy and self-management for years in an effort to empower employees, transforming them into entrepreneurs and forward thinkers.

Valve Corporation is another example of a commercial enterprise using a flat structure to drive success, which it believes facilitates the relationship between creators and consumers.

"Each person is trying to think about how to create as much value for customers as possible. How do we keep people honest? By creating an efficient market for people's time," said Co-Founder Gabe Newell.

So, when it comes to transforming the organisational structure of a company, CEOs and other business architects need to ensure they are aware of the impact it can have on their recruitment drives. With talent being such a valuable asset for companies, it's important to strategically plan for changes, with an eye on your leadership pipeline.