Narcissistic execs do more harm than good, research finds
Such bosses show great potential, but ultimately are ineffectual as leadersAugust 13th, 2010
Business executives with narcissistic personalities do have some productive attributes, but, ultimately, do they do more harm than good for an organization?
Narcissists, by definition, are arrogant, have grandiose visions about their own importance, believe they are special and have unique gifts that others don't, have a sense of entitlement, are exploitive, and lack empathy. In short, everything revolves around them because they think they are better than others.
Not the kind of qualities that most people consider to be desirable leadership traits.
Kathy Schnure knows. While working in the corporate world she learned firsthand about toxic leaders and the detrimental effect they can have on an organization.
She had a boss who exhibited all the characteristics of a narcissist. "I once completed a project in which I did 90 percent of the work and sat in on a meeting in which my boss gave a report and took complete credit for doing the work," she recalls.
"I was stunned that she did not at least acknowledge that I had a hand in developing the report," says Schnure, now a doctoral candidate at Georgia Tech. "She really believed she had done all the work. She figured she was the boss so everything that was accomplished was something she had done."
Because she bears the scars of working for a narcissistic boss, Schnure is focusing her research on toxic leaders. She presented her findings earlier this month at an annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, in Atlanta, Ga. She was among more than 600 presenters talking about their studies of workplace issues.
She compared ratings of leadership potential for those who have high levels of narcissism to those who show low-to-average levels on the narcissism scale. The results showed that narcissistic leaders have both positive and negative qualities.
She found those scoring highly on a narcissism scale had a significantly higher rating of potential leadership abilities than those with low-to-average scores. "Those results would indicate the vision, confidence, and pride in their own accomplishments could presumably translate into effective leadership in an organization or team," she says.
On the other hand, while narcissists do gain leadership roles, often based on their charisma and ability to persuade others to accept their point of view, some of the underlying traits, or "dark sides," eventually will surface, preventing any "good" leadership, she adds.
How is it possible to tell if a person possesses narcissistic tendencies?
Several valid tools measure narcissism, the most widely used being the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). Schnure incorporated NPI measurements in her work, including for exploitation-entitlement, leadership-authority, superiority-arrogance, and self-absorption-self-admiration.
"A person who rates high on these four factors can be described as narcissistic," she says.
Some might consider narcissists as having strong and confident self-images, which generally is thought to be a favorable characteristic of effective leaders.
Narcissism, however, is more than a positive self-image, says Timothy Judge, an industrial organizational psychologist at the University of Florida.
"It goes beyond positive to grandiose," Judge says. "Narcissists are intensely competitive, self-centered, exploitive, and exhibitionistic. They tend to surround themselves with supplicants they see as inferior. When they are challenged or perceive competition, they often derogate and undermine anyone, even those closest to them, they perceive as threats," and they are vigilant in scanning for threats, he says.
He points out, though, that "while most narcissists probably have a positive self-concept, most of those with a positive self-concept are not narcissists."
Narcissists are often referred to as charismatic, yet those two traits are not the same.
"A charismatic leader shares some traits of narcissism. Both can attract people and in that sense narcissists are charismatic. But a charismatic leader is not necessarily a narcissist," Schnure says. "Charismatic leaders are not exploitive; they do not trample others to get what they want. Rather they display empathy toward employees. Gandhi was a charismatic leader and cared deeply about others. Narcissists do not care about others unless they are helping advance their goals."
Nevertheless, some narcissists are considered productive because of their ability to inspire others with their visionary and charismatic personalities that are effective in environments that call for strong leadership.
Yet, says Schnure, while narcissists see the big picture and have a strong vision, research shows they are not good at working with other people and eventually become detrimental to an organization.
"They make good figureheads, in part because of their ability to articulate goals and attract people to their way of thinking. But in terms of day-to-day leadership, they can be toxic with subordinates," she says. "That becomes especially apparent after their employees get to know the way the narcissistic leader operates. The favorable first impressions they make are not sustainable over a period of time."
"One of the points of my study was to show that narcissism can be measured outside a clinical environment and that hiring managers should be more aware of this personality trait. While initial appearances may be favorable, they should do their due diligence before hiring a person with narcissistic tendencies.
"More organizations should attempt to assess narcissism pre-hire or pre-promotion to avoid them," asserts Judge. He adds that it's a "fool's errand" to think that narcissism can be corrected through organizational intervention.
"At best, organizations can try to contain and control a narcissist," he says.
For hiring managers, though, it's a case of buyer beware, because, as Judge points out, "no small amount of research suggests narcissism is a pretty toxic trait."
Schnure says another strategy to avoid hiring a narcissist is through references.
"Hiring managers shouldn't just talk to those on the applicant's reference list," she says. "Talk to people who worked for the person and a more accurate picture emerges. Also, be alert to how the applicant talks about achievements and successes. Does he or she say 'I' did this or did that, rather than 'we'? That's a tip-off to the person's ego and self-interest?"
Schnure says, "The people who work most closely with narcissists know them best and, for the most part, give them low grades on leadership skills and say they are poor at developing teamwork among workers. In fact, they can be divisive."
She likens narcissists to chameleons, which can blend with their environment.
"They are good at taking on different appearances. They will do or say what other people want to hear and then often do the opposite," Schnure says. "They are seldom stopped at the gate, but they can do a lot of harm to an organization once they are hired."