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According to research, an increasing number of American university students believe they are special. High self-esteem is typically thought to be a desirable thing, but does having too much of it hinder your success?

Since its inception in 1966, the American Freshman Survey has been completed by about nine million young people.

It asks students to rate how they compare to their peers in a variety of basic skills areas, and over the past 40 years, there has been a sharp increase in the proportion of students who describe themselves as “above average” in terms of academic ability, drive to succeed, mathematical prowess, and self-confidence.

The Narcissism Epidemic, co-written by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, attributes the rise in narcissistic attitudes to several trends, including celebrity culture, social media, parenting practices, and easy access to credit that makes people appear more successful than they are. “What’s become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident – loving yourself, believing in yourself – is the key to success,” Twenge writes.

The intriguing aspect of the notion is that it is false and is both widely and strongly held.

The seductive notion that elevating one’s self-esteem will enhance one’s quality of life gave rise to the Self-Esteem Movement.

Numerous self-help books have promoted the concept that all of us are capable of great things; all we need to do is have greater confidence.

More than 15,000 journal articles have examined the connections between strong self-esteem and observance of laws and social norms, academic success, employment prospects, social standing, health, and happiness.

However, there is scant evidence to suggest that improving one’s self-esteem has any real, beneficial effects.

This does not imply that those who lack confidence will perform better academically, professionally, or athletically.

You must have confidence in your ability to take action, but this is different from thinking well of yourself, according to Twenge. She uses a swimmer trying to master a turn as an example. This person needs to feel they can learn that skill, but believing they are already a fantastic swimmer is counterproductive.

Forsyth and Kerr investigated how constructive criticism affected university students who had obtained subpar marks (C, D, E and F). They discovered that when inferior students got encouragement intended to increase their self-worth, they performed worse.

According to Baumeister, “An intervention that promotes [students] to feel good about themselves, regardless of effort, may undermine the motivation to work hard.”

Do young people believe they are superior to others?  If so, sympathy might be a better reaction than judgment.

The narcissists that Twenge and Campbell describe are frequently charming and captivating on the outside. They are more confident in social situations and at job interviews, and they find it simple to begin partnerships. But the news is not good for them.

According to Twenge, narcissistic individuals frequently ruin their relationships over time, both at home and at work. Although narcissists may appear to have the best intentions, their behaviours inevitably expose their true motivations.

As for the narcissists themselves, they frequently don’t realize their life has been characterized by an unusually high number of unsuccessful relationships until they are in their middle years.

However, fixing it is difficult because narcissists are known for skipping out on therapy.

According to Twenge, “it’s a personality trait.” “Change is, by definition, incredibly difficult. Its roots are in genetics, early environment, culture, and other less malleable factors.

Even though they are not considered narcissists, many young individuals who have an excessively favourable picture of themselves don’t have a promising future.

According to a 2006 study led by Florida State University’s John Reynolds, students are becoming more ambitious while also raising the bar on what they expect, a phenomenon he terms “ambition inflation.”

There has been an upsurge in anxiety and melancholy since the 1960s and 1970s, when those expectations first began to rise, claims Twenge. “There will be a lot more people who fall short of their objectives.”

The following is an excerpt from my book, I Know Myself and Neither Do Youan examination of the importance of self-awareness for leaders.

“We do not serve the healthy development of young people when we convey that self-esteem may be achieved by reciting ‘I am special’ every day, or by stroking one’s face while saying ‘I love me.’”–Nathaniel Branden, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem

Accurate self-awareness and self-assessment become far more difficult if we have a distorted or exaggerated view of ourselves. Some experts blame the self-esteem movement of the last few decades for this development.

Self-esteem can be defined as an individual’s subjective evaluation of their worth. Social psychologists and co-authors of Social Psychology (4th Edition), Eliot Smith and Diane Mackie have defined it: “The self-concept is what we think about the self; self-esteem, is the positive or negative evaluations of the self, as in how we feel about it.”

The American psychologist Albert Ellis criticized numerous occasions the concept of self-esteem as essentially self-defeating and ultimately destructive. Although acknowledging the human propensity and tendency to ego rating as innate, he has critiqued the philosophy of self-esteem as unrealistic, illogical and destructive –often doing more harm than good.

Tasha Eurich argues persuasively that we are “living in an age of focus on self and self-aggrandizement.” This corresponds to the rise of the age of self-esteem. Eurich goes on to say “an excessive self–focus obscures our vision of those around us and distorts our ability to see ourselves as we are.” She quotes the research that shows an inverse relationship between how special we think we are and how self-aware we are.

Psychologist Roy Baumeister has studied the issue of self-esteem extensively. He reviewed 15,000 studies and found:

  • The relationship between self-esteem and success was virtually nonexistent.
  • People with high self-esteem are more violent and aggressive, and more likely to have relationship problems.

A study published in the Journal of Personality, by Michael Kernis suggests that high self-esteem isn’t necessarily healthy self-esteem because there are different types of high self-esteem.

“There are many kinds of high self-esteem, and in this study, we found that for those in which it is fragile and shallow it’s no better than having low self-esteem,” says researcher Kernis. “People with fragile high self-esteem compensate for their self-doubts by engaging in exaggerated tendencies to defend, protect and enhance their feelings of self-worth.”

Researchers say it was once thought that more self-esteem was necessarily better self-esteem. But in recent years, self-esteem has come under closer examination after discovering links to aggressive behavior.

For example, Kernis says high self-esteem can become harmful when it is accompanied by verbal defensiveness, such as lashing out at others when a person’s beliefs, statements, or values are threatened.

How Narcissism Negates Self-Awareness in Leaders

In its extreme form, exaggerated self-esteem in leaders can show up as narcissism. And narcissistic leaders in North America have been very successful from a financial perspective.

A research study completed by Charles A. O’Reilly III at Stanford’s business school surveyed employees in 32 large, publicly traded tech companies. He contends that bosses who exhibit narcissistic traits like dominance, self-confidence, a sense of entitlement, grandiosity and low empathy, tend to make more money than their less self-centered counterparts, even if the lower-paid CEOs exhibit plenty of confidence. O’Reilly says of narcissists, “they don’t care what other people think and depending on the nature of the narcissist, they are impulsive and manipulative.” O’Reilly goes on to argue the longer narcissistic leaders are at the helm, the higher their compensation in comparison with the rest of the leadership team, or in some cases the narcissistic bosses fire anyone who dares to question or challenge them.

There is a dark downside to this appearance of success, however, O’Reilly contends. Company morale often declines, and employees leave the company. And while the narcissistic or abusive leaders may bring in the bigger paychecks, O’Reilly says there is compelling evidence that they don’t perform any better than their lower-paid, less narcissistic counterparts. This argument has been supported by Michael Maccoby in his book, The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership.

Maccoby points out that tech firms, particularly those in Silicon Valley, are where abusive leaders thrive. His article on the subject in the Harvard Business Review received an overwhelming response of affirmation. He says in business and sports it is assumed if you are a big winner, you can get away with being a jerk. Stanford University professor Robert Sutton argues such bosses and cultures drive good people out and claims bad bosses affect the bottom line through increased turnover, absenteeism, decreased commitment and performance. He says the time spent counselling or appeasing these people, consoling victimized employees, reorganizing departments or teams and arranging transfers produce significant hidden costs for the company. And he warns organizations that narcissistic behavior is contagious.

INSEAD business school Professors Gianpiero Petriglieri and Jennifer Petriglieri, authors of “Can Business Schools Humanize Leadership?” argue that we have experienced a “dehumanization of leadership” in which leadership is reduced from a cultural enterprise to a strictly intellectual or commercial one, and in which leadership “distances aspiring leaders from their followers and institutions, resulting in a disconnect their inner and outer worlds.”

In my article “Why Do We Idolize the Narcissistic Boss, When We Know the Humble Ones Produce Better Results,” in The Financial Post, I argue “We all tend to be hypocritical about what makes a good leader–even management experts. We exalt and praise leaders who are nasty and abusive because they are financially successful; meanwhile, research shows that humble leaders whose focus is to serve others are equally successful, and capture the hearts and loyalty of others.”

I estimate that approximately 30% of the leaders I have coached over the past three decades had excessively high self-esteem and many of them displayed clear signs of narcissism. And in virtually all of these instances, the leaders lacked self-awareness.

So there may be limits to the value of high self-esteem, particularly when it comes to seeing yourself accurately.

Confidence vs Competence Linked to Narcissism

In corporate culture, development organizations, and life, men are generally more confident than women, who tend to be more modest – especially in business.

A 2015 study of more than 985,000 men and women in 48 countries by Dr. Wiebke Bleidorn (University of California), reviewed in found that men everywhere have higher self-esteem than women. And oddly enough, in Western countries (e.g. U.S. and Australia) the self-esteem gender gap is wider than it is in developing countries.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, in his article on incompetent leaders in Harvard Business Review, argues “If you want to understand why some companies have a toxic culture, underperform relative to their potential, and eventually collapse — look no further than the quality of their leadership teams. Whereas competent leaders cause high levels of trust, engagement, and productivity, incompetent ones result in anxious, alienated workers who practice counterproductive work behaviors and spread toxicity throughout the firm. Consider that the economic impact of avoiding a toxic worker is two times higher than that of hiring a star performer.” He says “Incompetent leaders are the main reason for low levels of employee engagement, and the prevalent high levels of passive job seeking and self-employment.”

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic contends that “Few traits are as central to the anatomy of incompetent leadership as arrogance. Contrary to popular belief, most people are overconfident rather than underconfident. Neither is it the case that we are better off when leaders have a great deal of confidence. Confidence (how good you think you are) is primarily beneficial when it is in sync with your competence (how good you are). However, a great deal of research has shown that people who are bad at something rate their skills as highly as people who are good at something — mainly due to a lack of self-awareness.”

Unsurprisingly, the mythical image of a “leader” embodies many of the characteristics commonly found in personality disorders, such as narcissism (Steve Jobs or Vladimir Putin), psychopathy (fill in the name of your favourite despot here), histrionic (Richard Branson or Steve Ballmer) or Machiavellian (nearly any federal-level politician) personalities. The sad thing is not that these mythical figures are unrepresentative of the average manager, but that the average manager will fail precisely for having these characteristics.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says that “most leaders — whether in politics or business — fail. That has always been the case: the majority of nations, companies, societies and organizations are poorly managed, as indicated by their longevity, revenues, and approval ratings, or by the effects they have on their citizens, employees, subordinates or members. Good leadership has always been the exception, not the norm.”

A Word of Caution to Parents

At first appearance, praise and parenting appear to be a perfect match: Parents praise their children to improve their self-esteem, offer encouragement, and demonstrate affection, while children benefit from their passionate approbation. Sometimes the focus on elevating their self-esteem entirely negates the child’s competence in whatever they are doing. However, research is demonstrating that things are not always as simple as they seem and that the praise that parents lavishly (and truly) bestow upon their children may have the opposite effect.

Even if some young people have an unreasonably high opinion of themselves and are exceedingly self-assured, the main sign of narcissism is the conviction that you are superior to others and more deserving of success. It’s not always egocentric for a child to declare, “I’m such a terrific drawer, and I can play soccer so well.” However, a youngster might become narcissistic if they believe they are better than others and say things like, “I’m more special than others,” and “Other people get the recognition that I genuinely deserve.”

The realization that you may be warm and compassionate with your child and boost their self-esteem without elevating the child is perhaps the most crucial lesson to learn.

Final Thoughts

In Western culture, there seems to be an unspoken belief that narcissism is necessary for success. The core premise is that if you don’t assert your superiority and claim what you believe you are entitled to, other people will step in to fill your shoes. We tend to perpetuate that notion, which may be detrimental. If you believe you are better than other people, you are more inclined to insult them and react angrily or even violently when someone criticizes you. Narcissism inhibits you from assessing criticism critically and using what you learn to become a better person.

And while being a better person should be our ultimate aim, displays of overconfidence and elevated self-esteem in the absence of objective measures of competence do not serve individuals or organizations well.