New research from Michigan State University and the Ohio State University reveals how CEO narcissism during a crisis can influence the behavior of middle managers, which may have implications for the firm overall.

CEOs and other high-level executives play a critical role in shaping an organization’s direction and response, especially when faced with a crisis like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Down the line, middle managers look to CEOs for guidance, compassion and care as they navigate significant uncertainty, change and stress.

“Given that CEOs are thought to play roles as chief calibrators in times of crises, their presence has become highly salient,” Jooyoung Kim, Ph.D. student in management and lead author of the paper, said. “Middle managers play roles as liaisons who mediate between the top management and bottom-level, front-line employees. With the tremendous uncertainty that the pandemic has brought about, such roles of coordinating, communicating and leading others are especially important for organizational adaptation and recovery.”

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology this fall, finds that when CEOs appear narcissistic it conflicts with what middle managers need and expect during a time of crisis. In turn, this causes higher uncertainty, decreased sense of control and lower levels of satisfaction for middle managers, which affect their own leadership behavior — and may pose far-reaching consequences for the entire organization.

“When middle managers view the CEOs as narcissistic — having inflated self-views and being self-centered, entitled, indifferent to others and attention-seeking — they tend to engage in workplace behaviors that may not necessarily benefit the company in the long run,” Kim said.

Hun Whee Lee (Ph.D. Management ’20), assistant professor at the Ohio State University, He Gao, assistant professor of management, and Russell Johnson, MSU Foundation Professor of Management, coauthored the paper with Kim. Together, they explored how middle managers in manufacturing, finance, engineering, retail, business consulting, health care and information technology respond to perceptions of CEO narcissism amid the ongoing pandemic.

They identified two types of coping responses that managers use to deal with the uncertainty triggered from narcissistic CEOs: impression management, a control response where the manager tries to socially influence others and maintain a positive image of themselves, and laissez-faire leadership, an escape response where the manager withdrawals from their own duties.

“Specifically, while [middle managers] spend more effort in forming favorable impressions about themselves via ingratiation, self-promotion and exemplification, they spend less effort in leading their subordinates,” Kim said.

As for what CEOs and other business leaders can do right now? The researchers suggest looking closely at their language and behavior to ensure sincerity, compassion and care shine through their leadership style.

“It is imperative that CEOs and companies pay attention to how they are viewed by the managers in order to ensure that they can play a good ‘linking pin’ role in connecting top management and lower-level employees during the pandemic,” Kim said. “We believe it is important that middle managers work in unison with CEOs in times of crisis in order for a firm to adapt successfully to the changing environment.”