Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: Most nonprofits and churches, with under 50 full time employees, work better as a “flat organization.” Read this comparison between the creativity and speed created in the flat organization vs. the typical hierarchal model. Moving to a hierarchical model when a church or nonprofit is small is one of the main factors that holds back their creativity and growth (ORGANIX: Signs of Leadership in a Changing Church, chpt. “N: Networked“).
Research: Narcissists Don’t Like Flat Organizations
Flat organizations are having a moment. Research has shown that reducing hierarchy can lead to more satisfied employees and speedier decision making, and some companies have concluded that flatter structures would work better. Zappos, for example, became a “holocracy” in order to empower employees to act like entrepreneurs. Similarly, Treehouse eliminated managers after noticing that “people had really great ideas but were powerless to implement them.”
But hierarchy does have its merits. It helps people learn relationships in the organization and satisfies a psychological need for order. Moreover, hierarchies perform well when the product requires coordination…
We wanted to know how hierarchy might influence the type of talent organizations can attract and retain. Our forthcoming paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science shows hierarchies and flat organizations attract different kinds of workers. We conducted a series of studies to understand how narcissism—a personality trait involving exaggerated self-worth, a sense of entitlement, and a desire for authority—relates to people’s organizational preference.
In our research, people’s level of narcissism was measured by their agreement or disagreement with a series of statements such as “I will be a success” and “I think I am a special person.” Participants then answered questions about how much they would want to work in a hierarchical organization.
Our research shows that people with narcissistic traits had a stronger desire to work in a hierarchical organization, compared to less narcissistic people. Why? They believed they would perform well and thus rise to the top. However, after learning about a hierarchical organization in which none of the high ranking people would be leaving the organization anytime soon, narcissists actually wanted to work there less than non-narcissistic participants did.
Thus, narcissists like hierarchical organizations because they think they will rise to high ranks and reap status and power. Narcissists are less interested in hierarchies where there is little opportunity for upward mobility. The same goes for flatter organizations, where there are fewer high ranks to attain…
Is it good or bad to have narcissistic employees?
That depends on your company. When negotiating with a client, do you just want to make the most money, or do you also care about maintaining a good relationship? Narcissists win more in negotiations, but they are also disliked by the other party. Do you value creativity? If so, it might be good to have some narcissists (not too few and not too many) because groups generate more creative ideas this way. Are you working in an industry where seeking risk is rewarded, or one where risk aversion is more valuable? Studies of CEOs have demonstrated that more narcissistic leaders show a greater bias toward action and more aggressive pursuit of potential rewards, and they pay less attention to mitigating risk.