Gerstner, König, Enders, and Hambrick (2013). CEO Narcissism, Audience Engagement, and Organizational Adoption of Technological Discontinuities

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[We’re pleased to welcome Johnathan Cromwell and Michael Lee, both of Harvard Business School. Jonathan and Michael recently had the opportunity to interview the authors of “CEO Narcissism, Audience Engagement, and Organizational Adoption of Technological Discontinuities” from Administrative Science Quarterly.]

Republished with permission. The original post was published on the ASQ Blog.

Authors:
Wolf-Christian Gerstner – University of Erlangen-Nuremberg
Andreas König – University of Passau
Albrecht Enders – IMD International
Donald C. Hambrick – The Pennsylvania State University

Interviewers:
Johnathan Cromwell – Harvard Business School
Michael Lee – Harvard Business School

Question 1. One of the aspects about this paper that we found so fascinating was that it integrated two sets of literatures in a way ASQ_v60n2_Jun2014_cover.inddthat hadn’t been done before. We can imagine that while this leads to highly novel and interesting research, it can also add additional challenges during the review process. Were there any specific challenges that you had to overcome during the review process in communicating your research to these different audiences?

This is, in fact, a very good question, and something that one should always be aware of when integrating two streams of research. In a way, doing so is in and of itself a discontinuous change because it means applying a new theoretical lens to an already studied phenomenon, with potentially challenging epistemological and theoretical contradictions. However, in our case, we were lucky because, although the upper echelons literature and the literature on discontinuous change have not yet been integrated to a great extent by previous studies, the theoretical assumptions underlying these two fields and the foci of their analyses are highly compatible and complementary. In particular, the discontinuous change literature has always had a top executive view on strategic decision making, which stems from the fact that decisions in turbulent times are typically top management decisions. As such, it was somewhat intuitive to envision that CEO narcissism has a stake in decisions about technology adoption in large companies.

Question 2. We were struck by the amount of work that was put into constructing the main independent variable on CEO narcissism. If students were interested in testing a different cognitive attribute or personality characteristic to explain organizational decisions, how would you recommend trying to measure them? What might be a common mistake that we should try to avoid?

Of course, gathering the data on CEO narcissism involved a lot of meticulous work, in particular because we had to collect data from years back, even before 1980. To get access to these sources, which can’t just be downloaded from an online database, we ended up having to visit places like the Chicago Public Library and order microfiche copies. However, we benefited greatly from the fact that the measure itself had already been developed by Chatterjee and Hambrick (2007).

As for measuring other CEO attributes, we see numerous new opportunities for further research. In particular, new ways of using language, voice, and body language are emerging, which might just allow us to gauge numerous facets of personality, both stable traits and more transient states. For instance, at the Academy of Management last year in Philadelphia, we organized a symposium on the use of content analysis to further advance this area of upper echelons research. The diverse approaches presented there included aspects such as perceptions of time and cognitive structures as reflected in conceptual metaphors. Moving forward, we believe it is pivotal to focus on aspects of executive personality that are influential, but whose influence, at the same time, is not unilateral but rather dependent on context. This is surely one of the features that make narcissism so interesting to study (apart from the fact that almost everyone who has worked in an organization has experienced working with a narcissist, with all its upsides and downsides).

Question 3. We usually think of the discussion section as a place to interpret results, discuss strengths and weaknesses of analysis, or discuss broader implications of the research. We found the discussion section in this paper to be interesting, because it also introduced new quantitative analyses to help support the main findings of the paper. Why were these included in the discussion instead of as a robustness check in the results section?

That is an interesting question, particularly because there seem to be different perspectives on such post-hoc analyses. Some colleagues do not think they should be part of a paper; conversely, others, including ourselves, believe that these elaborations illuminate interesting aspects and add to the liveliness and granularity of the research presented. Note also that, in our case, the post-hoc discussion is not a robustness check but rather an exploration of the reasons why we did not find significant results for our last hypothesis.

Question 4. Given your interesting findings, what do you feel are the most important implications for managerial practice from this work?

It’s indeed interesting to see how executives respond when we present our findings and related findings made by colleagues. What resonates most profoundly with decision makers is the idea that narcissistic leaders have both a dark side and a bright side, and that the bright side might in fact be most salient in times of radical change when tough decisions need to be made. Another aspect they can relate to is our recommendation to be more aware of how external stimuli, including from the media, affect how decision makers and their organizations act. These insights are also – and perhaps most importantly – crucial for board members of companies that “missed the boat” on disruptive innovations (that the board believes will pan out) and need to catch up. In this case, a narcissistic CEO might, ceteris paribus, be an advantage as she or he will drive change on a larger scale than less a narcissistic CEO.

Question 5. Is there anything about this paper that you think is particularly interesting that we didn’t ask about? Please tell us about it.

Thank you for asking! One thing that we think is particularly important is the role of audience engagement in spurring company behavior, especially responses to innovation. While there is increasing debate about how companies’ communication and actions shape the responses of stakeholders such as analysts and journalists, we still know too little about how pressures from these stakeholders affect company behavior. This is especially the case in the context of innovation, which happens in a social environment that surrounds companies and their executives and might influence technological trajectories more than we have previously thought.

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