Jul 01, 2014


Narcissists are typically categorised as being self-centred, overconfident in their abilities and lacking empathy for others.

Considering their expertise at self-promotion, it is therefore not difficult to see why some narcissists quickly find themselves in leadership positions.

According to 2008 Ohio State University research, people who score highly for narcissism are more likely to take charge of a leaderless group.

Amy Brunell, lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology, said the results are unsurprising.

“They like power, they are egotistical, and they are usually charming and extroverted. But the problem is, they don't necessarily make better leaders,” she explained.

Is narcissism important?

The Ohio university research involved placing people into groups of four and giving them a scenario where they imagined being shipwrecked on an island. Participants had to pick 15 salvageable items to take ashore to aid their survival.

Typically, the narcissists took charge with discussions and rated themselves as the group leader. However, the results showed these teams performed no better than groups with lower narcissism scores.

More recent research from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) made similar findings, claiming that narcissism doesn't appear to be either a positive or a negative factor in leadership.

However, using previously unanalysed Hogan data, the academic institution did find a correlation between extremely high or low levels of narcissism and poor leadership.

Emily Grijalva, lead author of the study, said: “Our findings are pretty clear that the answer to the question as to whether narcissism is good or bad is that it is neither. It's best in moderation.

“With too little, a leader can be viewed as insecure or hesitant, but if you're too high on narcissism, you can be exploitative or tyrannical.”

The interview effect

Despite not making better leaders, narcissists continue to reach powerful positions based on charisma and charm – but this can quickly wear off.

Peter Harms, assistant professor of management in UNL's College of Business Administration, said self-centred individuals are usually impressive over a short-term period.

“Narcissists are great in interview situations – if you can reduce a leadership contest down to sound bites, you will give them an advantage,” he explained.

However, Mr Harms added that they become increasingly annoying as time goes by, which is a problem for organisations that hire them.

“At the personal level, they can be jerks. At the strategic level, they can take huge gambles because they're so confident they're right. They're either making a fortune or they're going broke,” he stated.

The researchers advised businesses to be wary of conducting recruitment and selection practices that cater to narcissists' strengths.

Narcissism on the rise?

While narcissism in the workplace is not a new issue, there is evidence to suggest the trait could be causing more problems for businesses due to the nature of the modern commercial environment.

Experts claim the increasing penetration of technology is creating a new trend of digital narcissism. This is manifested in fanatic social media use, where 'selfies', likes and positive comments provide instant gratification for users.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, vice-president of research and innovation at Hogan, said this behaviour is most notable in Millennials.

He argued that social media isn't necessarily causing people to become narcissistic; it is merely feeding their pre-existing narcissism.

Companies will be unable to stop this trend from permeating the workplace, Mr Chamorro-Premuzic said, but there could be huge rewards for employees that rein in their narcissism.

“I think there will be huge demand in the near future for Millennials who are less self-centred and more altruistic. People who aren't self-obsessed – but obsessed with the wellbeing of others and the organisation.”


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