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Rice research reveals that narcissistic CEOs sabotage their firms

Research from a former Rice University professor linked the size of CEO signatures to ego. CEOs with big egos entered into more risky, unreliable deals. Pexels

You've just been named CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Your ego fills the room. The laws of gravity don't apply to you.

And naturally, you want to make an impact. So you pour money into mergers and acquisitions, and when you're not trying to acquire another firm, you guide company resources into research and development. You're a genius, and the world will soon be clinging to your every new product.

The only problem: your company will likely underperform. Research by former Rice Business visiting professor Sean Wang (now at Cox School of Business as SMU), along with Nicholas Seybert of the University of Maryland and Charles Ham of Washington University at St. Louis, reveals the high costs of an out of control CEO ego.

The researchers' first challenge was establishing who could legitimately be called a narcissist. What does the term mean, exactly? While there are varying definitions, Wang's team focused on narcissism as a basic personality trait rather than a mental illness. As a personality trait, narcissism is associated with entitlement, vanity, authority, and a sense of superiority.

To spot narcissists, the team took a novel approach: they examined their research subjects' signatures. Signature size turns out to be a handy measure for egos, because it doesn't require participants to answer direct questions about their personalities — and because participants are unlikely to know that ego can affect something as simple as a signature.

Just having a big ego, though, does not a narcissist make. To validate a link between a person's signature and narcissism, the researchers asked 53 graduate business students to provide their signatures by signing a document, and then to take a personality survey that measured narcissism. The findings documented that indeed there was a strong correlation between signature size and narcissism.

Next, the researchers obtained data from prior psychology research on employee perceptions of 32 technology-firm CEOs. Of the 24 CEOS for whom the researchers also had signature samples, they found a significant correlation between narcissism and signature size.

Armed with these findings, Wang and his colleagues were able to extrapolate the narcissistic traits of thousands of CEOs whose signatures were readily available on proxy statements and other corporate documents. The researchers ultimately studied 741 CEOs from 411 firms during the period between 1992 and 2015, corresponding to 6,361 firm-year observations with a median of eight fiscal years per CEO.

They found a pronounced behavior pattern. Firms led by narcissistic CEOs invested more in high-exposure areas such as research and development and mergers and acquisitions, but shied away from routine capital expenditures for day-to-day productivity. This trend was even more pronounced during periods of financial slack, suggesting that narcissistic CEOs prefer an aggressive management style whenever possible. Financial productivity delivered by these narcissistic CEOs in terms of profitability was lower than their less egotistic counterparts.

The research has multiple implications. Narcissistic leaders, past research shows, are prone to make bad decisions — in part because they are bad listeners. As a result, they often dominate the decision process without incorporating feedback or ideas from others. Ironically, they mistakenly perceive this behavior as a signal of competence and strong leadership.

To counter these bad habits, the researchers say, during periods of financial sluggishness investors and corporate boards should combat excessive narcissist-led investment by pushing for higher dividend payouts. Given that narcissistic CEOs overinvest in R&D, investors also need to closely monitor whether such investments represent real innovation or just vanity. Finally, boards of directors should be aware that narcissistic leaders tend to command higher salaries — and consider whether their CEO falls into this category, and is essentially getting higher pay for inferior performance.

In short, to really be as boss as they see themselves, narcissistic corporate leaders need to recognize their tendencies and rigorously check their egos. Boards, meanwhile, should closely monitor their CEO's priorities in directing firm resources. It could be the writing on the wall.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Sean Wang is a former visiting assistant professor of accounting at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. He is now an assistant professor at Cox School of Business at SMU.

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Building Houston

 
 

Here's your one-stop shop for innovation events in Houston for December. Photo via Getty Images

Houstonians have yet another good batch of in-person and online innovation events, and you and your tech network need to know about them.

Here's a roundup of virtual events not to miss this December — like pitch nights, workshops, conventions, and more.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.


December 1 — 2022-2023 UH Energy Symposium Series

The Division of Energy and Innovation, along with the UH Center for Carbon Management in Energy, are hosting a day-long symposium to discuss pathways and solutions to make Texas carbon neutral by 2050. UH experts and energy industry partners will serve as panelists to discuss the drivers, opportunities, and challenges for change, and more.

The event is on Thursday, December 1, from 9 am to 7 pm, at University of Houston (Houston Room - University of Houston Student Center South). Click here to register.

December 5 — Pumps & Pipes: Ion to Infinity

Highlighting innovations in Web3, Artificial Intelligence, Extended Reality, and Robotics, attendees will hear from visionaries across medicine, energy, and aerospace who are developing and launching technologies in these fields.

The event is on Monday, December 5, from 8 am to 3 pm at The Ion. Click here to register.

December 6 — Softeq Venture Studio Demo Day

The Softeq Venture Studio's 2H 2022 cohort is the largest yet with 22 member companies, which brings the total portfolio to 49 companies. This cohort includes entrepreneurs from several global locations as diverse as the United Kingdom, Iceland, Mexico, and Peru. In this capstone event, founders have three minutes each to present their pitch deck, demo their product, outline their ask, and answer questions.

The event is on Tuesday, December 6, from 8 am to 3 pm at The Ion. Click here to register.

December 7 — Houston Veterans In Residence Showcase

Bunker Labs’ Veterans in Residence Showcase is a nationwide event, celebrating over 500 veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs launching their startups and businesses.

The event is on Wednesday, December 7, from 6 to 8 pm at Sesh Coworking. Click here to register.

December 8 — 8th Annual SWPDC Symposium on Pediatric Device Innovation and Business Meeting:

The 8th Annual SWPDC Symposium on Pediatric Device Innovation and Business Meeting will feature the keynote presentation "Non-Dilutive Federal Funding for Pediatric Device Startups" by Michael Heffernan, Director of Research & Technology at Fannin Innovation Studio.

The event is on Thursday, December 8, from 4 to 7 pm, at the Queensbury Theatre. Click here to register.

December 8 — HAN Holiday Party

Join the Houston Angel Network for their annual party.

The event is on Thursday, December 8, from 6 to 8 pm, at Postino City Centre. Click here to register.

December 10 — TXRX Holiday Make-a-thon

Get your festive fun on by participating in one of our hands-on workshops. Learn more about how we make through our live demos.

The event is on Saturday, December 10, from 3 to 6 pm, at TXRX. Click here to register.

December 13 — Future of the Houston Region

The reimagined Future of the Houston Region event features one of the fastest-growing areas in the Houston region - Montgomery County. Conversations will be focused on the county’s rapid growth, business developments within the area, future plans of expansion and its overall importance to the region.

The event is on Tuesday, December 13, from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm at The Woodlands Waterway Marriott. Click here to register.

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