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Excessive narcissism inhibits knowledge flow within teams

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

Narcissism has many well-known drawbacks, but one of the perhaps less well-known is its impact on the flow of knowledge within teams and units, yet that’s precisely what research1 from Renmin Business School demonstrates.

The researchers show that the impact of narcissism can be dulled somewhat in complex or dynamic environments, but is exacerbated when there are high levels of competition between teams or units, which can enhance the tendency for narcissists to focus on distinctiveness.

“How to promote inter-unit knowledge transfer among different business units or subsidiaries inside a multi-unit firm is a key issue that often puzzles top executives of the parent firm,” the researchers explain, “the parent firm hopes to rapidly develop and expand business; but on the other hand, the parent firm isn’t always able to provide detailed guidance to each business unit. If units share knowledge with one another related to operation management, it improves firm performance—but both practice and research show that inter-unit knowledge transfer is never easy.”

Knowledge transfer

The research builds on previous work that has explored the flow of knowledge throughout organizations, and particularly via upper echelons theory. The researchers focused on the impact of narcissism in the head of a unit due to the belief that the personality of top executives has a strong influence on the strategy of the organization and of the unit.

They conducted a couple of field studies to test their hypothesis, with data collected from all 52 business units in a Chinese company that builds charging systems for electric cars and from 118 business units in another Chinese headhunting firm.

The results show that narcissistic executives were much more likely to share knowledge when they operated in a complex or dynamic environment. The researchers believe that this may be due to the fact that narcissistic executives may inherently believe that their team (or them themselves) have superior knowledge and are therefore less likely to believe in the knowledge of other teams.

What’s more, they may also believe that knowledge transfer could diminish their own sense of superiority and uniqueness, which could inhibit their own willingness to receive knowledge from external sources.

“However … if they can offer social accounts and justifications that preserve their sense of superiority and avoid broadcasting an impression of weakness and vulnerability, narcissists are less likely to resist learning behaviors and new information,” the authors conclude. “An environment characterized by complexity or dynamism is particularly suitable for providing such face-saving justifications or ‘cover’ for narcissists’ fragile self-esteem.”

Article source: Excessive Narcissism Inhibits Knowledge Flow Within Teams.

Header image source: Created by Bruce Boyes with Microsoft Copilot Designer using the prompt “a narcissistic man at work checking his reflection on a shiny surface.”


  1. 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, 43(11), 2351-2381.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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