Narcissists (and their supporters) may think they’d make for good bosses, but several studies show that their preoccupation with themselves hinders their performance and can make organizations unethical.

Narcissists like to be in charge, so it stands to reason that a new study shows individuals who are overconfident about their abilities are most likely to step in as leaders, be they politicians or power brokers.

However, their initiative doesn’t mean they are the best leaders. The study also found narcissists don’t outperform others in leadership roles.

Narcissists tend to be egotistical types who exaggerate their talents and abilities and lack empathy for others. The researchers stress that narcissism is not the same as high self-esteem.

Persons who display either narcissistic personality disorder or the narcissistic personality type are preoccupied with maintaining excessively positive self-concepts. They become overly concerned with obtaining positive, aggrandizing feedback from others and react with extremely positive or negative emotions when they succeed or fail to receive confirmation that others hold them in high regard. Narcissists want positive feedback about themselves, and they actively manipulate others to solicit or coerce admiration from them. Accordingly, narcissism is thought to reflect a form of chronic interpersonal self-esteem regulation.

Individuals with a narcissistic personality disorder, according to the American Psychological Association’s DSM-5, exhibit five or more of the following, which are present by early adulthood and across contexts:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance.
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  • The belief that one is special and can only be understood by or associated with special people or institutions.
  • A need for excessive admiration.
  • A sense of entitlement (to special treatment).
  • The exploitation of others.
  • A lack of empathy.
  • Envy of others or the belief that one is the object of envy.
  • Arrogant, haughty behavior or attitudes.

Individuals with NPD can be easily stung by criticism or defeat and may react with disdain or anger—but social withdrawal or the false appearance of humility may also follow according to the DSM-5.

A sense of entitlement, disregard for other people, and other aspects of NPD can damage relationships. While a person with NPD may be a high-achiever, the personality disorder can also hurt performance (due to, for instance, one’s sensitivity to criticism).

Although narcissists have leadership-related qualities, such as confidence, authority and high self-esteem, their self-centeredness ultimately prevents them from partaking in the creative exchange of information and ideas, which is crucial in group decision-making situations, the researchers at the University of Amsterdam said.

“A person with high self-esteem is confident and charming, but they also have a caring component and they want to develop intimacy with others,” said lead researcher Amy Brunell, a psychologist at Ohio State University at Newark. “Narcissists have an inflated view of their talents and abilities and are all about themselves. They don’t care as much about others.” Her study with colleagues was published in the journalPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Brunell said she believes the results apply to many parts of life, from the politics of presidential races to Wall Street.

“Many people have observed that it takes a narcissistic person to run for president of the United States,” Brunell said. “I would be surprised if any of the candidates who have run weren’t higher than average in narcissism.”

Wall Street traders could also have a high dose of narcissism, she suggested. “There have been a lot of studies that have found narcissistic leaders tend to have volatile and risky decision-making performance and can be ineffective and potentially destructive leaders.”

The construct of cultural narcissism has been with us for decades, most notably in the work of cultural historian Christopher Lasch (The Culture of Narcissism). Lash says “Cultural narcissism is reflected in TV shows and song lyrics, as well as widespread tendencies toward vanity, materialism, entitlement, and fame-seeking. We have documented increases in a range of these cultural markers; these changes are typically larger than the increases in individual narcissism.”

 They can be self-centred, arrogant or cocky. They seem charming at first but later turned out to be intensely self-absorbed. They may be supremely confident in their abilities but turn out to be incompetent — and blame other people for their failures.

 Narcissists must perform a variety of mental and social gymnastics to protect their grandiose views of themselves. They seek attention and admiration. They build splashy, often exaggerated profiles on Facebook. They play games in relationships. And they lash out at anyone who criticizes them.

 But can an entire culture be narcissistic? Evidence points to that very trend, placing narcissism in the category of an epidemic — a disease spreading at a higher rate than usual.

 Evidence for Increasing Narcissism Among Individuals

Studies of narcissism have looked at the prevalence of the trait from both developmental and generational perspectives. A study by Emily Grijalva and Luyao Zhang published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, of a nationally representative sample of US citizens used interviews to assess the lifetime prevalence of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), the most serious form of individual narcissism. The researchers found that Americans in their 20s were three times as likely as people over age 60 to have experienced NPD in their lifetimes.

In a sense, narcissism is the dark side of individualism — freedom without responsibility, relationships without personal sacrifice, and positive self-views without grounding in reality.

The researchers aggregated a variety of studies on the subject and found that while narcissists are more likely to garner leadership positions, there was no evidence of a link between narcissism and a leader’s success.

 More specifically, the study found that the poorest leaders are those with either extremely high or extremely low levels of narcissism.

“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,” said Grijalva. “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.”

Peter Harms, assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a co-author of the study, said those with moderate levels of narcissism have achieved “a nice balance between having sufficient levels of self-confidence, but do not manifest the negative, antisocial aspects of narcissism that involve putting others down to feel good about themselves.”

Harms, who has conducted extensive research on maladaptive traits in the workplace, said that the idea that narcissism can be a double-edged sword is not new.

“(Narcissists) are usually very good in short-term situations when meeting people for the first time. But the impression they create quickly falls apart,” he said. “You soon realize that they are nowhere as good or as smart as they say they are.”

Those in charge of hiring or promoting leaders for their organization should proceed with caution, he said.

“Narcissists are great in interview situations – if you can reduce a leadership contest down to sound bites, you will give them an advantage,” Harms said. “But as time goes on, they become increasingly annoying. 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.”

Overconfidence is not unique to narcissists or the powerful. In a review article published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, psychological scientists David Dunning, Chip Heath, and Jerry M. Suls reviewed the research on self-assessment. Based on their review, they come to a key conclusion: “When one looks at the accuracy of self-assessment in the workplace, from the office cubicle to the executive boardroom, one sees that people tend to hold overly inflated self-views that are modestly related to actual performance.”

In a recent study, Berkeley Haas Professor Jennifer Chatman and colleagues show that narcissistic leaders have a lasting negative influence on their organizations in addition to having a profound effect on individuals. Researchers found that narcissistic leaders “infect” their companies’ very cultures, acting like virus carriers. As a result, teamwork and integrity at all levels are significantly reduced—even after they leave.

The essay “When ‘Me’ Trumps ‘We’: Narcissistic Leaders and the Cultures they Create” co-written by Chatman, Charles A. O’Reilly of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and Bernadette Doerr of Berkeley Haas was published in the journal The Academy of Management Discoveries.

In past studies on toxic leaders, Chatman and her colleagues found that narcissistic CEOs have a dark side that gradually manifests over time. Their exploitative, narcissistic behaviour sets them apart from the charismatic, “transformational” leaders they are frequently mistaken for. In addition, they receive higher pay than their non-narcissistic peers and a bigger pay gap from the other top executives in their companies, frequently as a result of their talent for exaggerating others’ accomplishments. Studies by Chatman and her colleagues show that narcissistic leaders increase the number of legal conflicts at their companies.

The characteristics of narcissistic leaders, according to Chatman, are tremendously grandiose, overconfident, dishonest, credit-stealing, and blame-throwing. They mistreat their staff, act arrogantly, disregard experts, incite conflict, and believe that the law doesn’t apply to them. They can explode in rage at the first sign of discord or betrayal. They always look at the team from an “I” lens.

The authors of the study also discovered that more narcissistic individuals were more likely to favour practices that discouraged cooperation and honesty, such as being prepared to overlook infractions of corporate rules or elevating unethical individuals. They also concluded that employees of a more narcissistic CEO were less inclined to advocate policies or promote candidates who exhibited these traits, among other recommendations that showed less teamwork and integrity.

Nearly 900 business school graduates from Stanford, Santa Clara, and UC Berkeley who worked for 56 sizable, American publicly traded high-tech companies were also polled by the researchers. Alumni responded to surveys to assess the cultures of their organizations and the personalities of their CEO. The researchers discovered that more narcissistic CEOs were less likely to run businesses with collaborative cultures and an emphasis on integrity after controlling for variables like firm size and the length of the CEO’s employment.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that organizations with less collaborative and moral cultures are more prone to encounter legal issues and break the law, according to O’Reilly. Other research has demonstrated that narcissistic CEOs are more prone to become mired in protracted legal disputes and distort earnings. O’Reilly and his associates are working on a study that will examine if CEOs who are rated as being more narcissistic by their company boards are more prone to break the law.

Effects of Narcissists in the Workplace

The saying “fish rots from the head down” describes how subordinates act out when they see their superiors misbehaving.

However, simply imitating the boss is insufficient. According to Chatman, narcissists do not breed narcissists. It’s not required to imitate the example set by the leader. It is about the leader creating a culture that promotes people to behave less morally and cooperatively than they otherwise would, whether or not they are narcissists.

That’s because the culture of the company, not simply the boss, is a crucial element affecting employee behaviour, according to Chatman, a trailblazing researcher in the field. “Organizational culture outlasts any leader,” she asserts. “Cultivated cultures continue to exist even in the absence of a leader.”

Through the laws and conventions they directly implement or, more commonly, fail to do so, narcissists disseminate their disease. They frequently choose not to put strong guidelines into place about moral behaviour, conflicts of interest and pay equity for men and women, as well as practices that promote teamwork and push people to treat one another with respect. On the other hand, they frequently fail to sanction employees who violate these norms. In reality, according to Chatman, individuals are rewarded for engaging in immoral and aggressive behaviour.

Organizations suffer long-term harm as a result of these kinds of acts. When people are unable to cooperate, collective accomplishments are more challenging to achieve. Employees’ capacity to grow, learn and pick up new knowledge decreases. When workers see leaders taking credit for every success and blaming others for every failure, employee morale declines and self-confidence plummets

Charismatic Narcissistic Leaders

While charisma is generally considered a highly positive and attractive attribute, it also has negative aspects. Leadership expert Jay Conger points out that there is a “dark side” to charismatic leadership in which untrammelled ambitions and powerful personal forces hold sway.

In general, a leader’s vision may project personal needs based on underlying neurosis while misreading market demand and the availability of resources. For example, Edwin Land of Polaroid sank millions of dollars into the development of his dream camera, priced six times higher than the successful Colorpaks then in high consumer demand. Steve Jobs, An Wang, and John DeLorean also appeared to make major market miscalculations, inducing investors to advance large sums of money for projects that promised to be state-of-the-art but ended up being expensive failures.

Sometimes, charismatics may destroy a company through wild and unchallenged ambitions that produce an unrealistic vision. Consider, for example, the case of People’s Express. The company’s charismatic CEO, Donald Burr’s expansionism undermined his original success, which was based on no-frills, low-cost service solidified by a tight-knit workforce sharing the profits. After a quick takeoff and supersonic growth, People Express eventually crashed as big competitors undercut Burr’s discount fares to prevent him from taking away their customers.

The combination of charisma and narcissism is formidable. Researcher Heinz Kohut notes that narcissistic charismatics “have the uncanny ability to exploit, not necessarily in full awareness, the unconscious feelings of their subordinates.” In this process, some followers may try to embrace an “omnipotent” leader, one who will fulfill their dependency needs. In particular, a leader who is both charismatic and narcissistic may be able to make full use of his or her symbolic power to gain follower endorsement of views and actions. Because of his or her narcissism, such a leader may tend toward grandiose visions and bold actions, blaming others when things go wrong. Followers come under the leader’s sway and buy into actions and explanations they would ordinarily construe as excessive and self-serving.

Narcissism and CEO Hubris

Researchers Sarosh Asad and colleagues have shown in their research published in Leadership,  the connection between hubris and narcissism of CEOs. Among their conclusions were:

  • They both occupy the darker side of leadership and lead to pernicious effects and potentially destructive outcomes.
  • Metaphorically, “hubrists” are intoxicated with positional power and prior success, but for narcissists, power facilitates self-intoxication.
  • Hubris is a grandiose sense of self, characterized by disrespectful attitudes toward others and a misperception of one’s place in the world.
  • Researchers have pointed out how many of today’s leaders epitomize narcissism in their personalities and are hubristic regarding their leadership behaviors that society appears to be becoming more narcissistic and there appears to be a hubris ‘epidemic’ among leaders.
  • Many recent and notorious corporate scandals were precipitated by CEOs who exhibited hubris and/or narcissism (e.g. Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos, Martin Winterkorn at Volkswagen, Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling at Enron, Calisto Tanzi at Parmalat, Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers, Jan Carlzon at SAS Airlines, and Carlos Ghosn at Nissan). Such scandals sparked intense interest in and concern for how these attributes among leaders could be among the antecedents of corporate fraud, environmental degradations, and various destructive leadership unethical practices.
  • Quintessentially, hubristic leaders become intoxicated with power and prior successes, and thus they become overconfident in their abilities, overestimate the probability of further successful outcomes, simultaneously underestimate what can go wrong, are contemptuous toward and disparage the advice and criticism of others, and create conditions that invite or give rise to negative unintended consequences.

A research report by MWM Consulting on the risk of narcissistic, arrogant and power-hungry behavior by CEOs, “Taming Narcissus”, suggests that the unchecked personalities of senior leaders can become a major destructive force and harder to detect than other corporate threats.

For MWM’s study, more than 80 CEOs, chairmen and board directors shared their experiences (successful and unsuccessful) of identifying high-risk CEOs across 400 boards in 21 countries. Michael Reyner, the managing partner at MWM, says: “If their behavior becomes distorted and is unchecked, a once enormously positive and talented CEO can begin to imperil the business. If the CEO stops listening to advice and there are not sufficient checks and balances, the business can make flawed decisions. Equally, the culture can become corrupted with people unable to be open and say what they think, believing that they have to ingratiate themselves with the CEO.”

In his book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (and how to fix it), psychologist Tomas Chamorrow-Premuzic argues convincingly, “although men make up a majority of leaders, they underperform when compared with female leaders. Most organizations equate leadership potential with a handful of destructive personality traits, like overconfidence and narcissism…. The result is a deeply flawed system that rewards arrogance rather than humility and loudness rather than wisdom.”

In my article, “Our Obsession with Narcissistic Leaders When Humble Leaders Are Better,” in The Financial Post, I argue, “The public in general and even management experts are hypocritical about what makes a good leader. On the one hand, we exalt and praise leaders who are nasty and abusive (called assholes by some) because they are financially successful and on the other hand, research shows that humble leaders whose focus is to serve others are equally successful, but more importantly, capture the hearts and loyalty of others. Which do we value more?”

There is a dark downside to this appearance of success Charles 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.

Robert Sutton was one of the first leadership experts to draw attention to the prevalence of abusive bosses and how organizations should screen them out, as detailed in his book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. He points out that tech firms, particularly those in Silicon Valley are where abusive leaders thrive.

He says in business and sports it is assumed if you are a big winner, you can get away with being an asshole. 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 this behavior is contagious.

Narcissistic Leaders and Unethical Behavior

The jury is still out on whether narcissistic leaders have a significant impact on long-term company performance, according to Chatman, despite the overwhelming evidence that those who are overconfident and unethical generate lower financial performance and are subject to more regulatory investigations of ethical breaches than those who are not. This is so because a wide range of external and market-related factors can have an impact on stock prices, sales, and profitability. However, Chatman contends that narcissists’ propensity for getting involved in legal disputes and ethical violations, as well as their overconfidence that makes them hypersensitive to danger and low employee motivation, are a recipe for bad organizational performance.

However, the myth endures: Don’t fearless, creative entrepreneurs like Elon Musk of Tesla or Steve Jobs of Apple need to have a little bit of narcissism to have the self-assurance to start unconventional and extremely hazardous ventures? No, without a doubt, says Chatman. She asserts that it is possible to be innovative and self-assured without also being selfish, exploitative of others, overconfident, or risk-averse. “The ideal countering example is Bill Gates. However, the general public, particularly in the United States, has come to believe that leaders should be brash and overconfident.

Preventing Narcissistic Leadership

Simply refusing to hire or promote narcissistic leaders is one clear way to prevent them. According to Chatman, organizations should take specific steps to screen for certain personality types. Asking challenging questions to elicit bad behaviours from a variety of examples, not simply those a leader gives, is a popular strategy. However, narcissists frequently have the insight to know who will sing their praises and who won’t, so they only offer a small group of recommendations. Executive search companies may be used in some situations to look beyond references and try to obtain more elusive information.

However, cunning narcissists can occasionally avoid being noticed until they have been present for a long. Self-absorbed CEOs can be exposed by using 360-degree assessments from a variety of staff, according to Chatman.

According to Chatman, it takes constant effort from the board to control a narcissist’s worst inclinations after it is obvious that a company has a toxic leader at the top. Unfortunately, a lot of boards of directors don’t go that step far enough, which is part of the reason why businesses have ended up with so many CEOs who score highly on the narcissistic scale.

According to Chatman, one of the best ways to lessen the harm that narcissistic leaders may do is to base a sizable portion of their pay and performance evaluation on the growth of their employees. Additionally, boards can figure out ways to recognize peer collaboration and link a leader’s pay to the success of their team. These kinds of measures aid in ensuring that leaders cannot avoid giving others credit and cooperating.

According to Chatman’s research, eliminating a narcissistic boss is merely the first step in rehabilitating the organization once they have gained a firm grip. Boards “cannot think that they will be able to change how people act in the organization by just replacing a leader,” she advises. “The policies and practises that reward employees for prioritizing unethical and non-collaborative actions will still be ingrained with the culture that leaders helped to build. It will require conscious effort and perhaps a lot of time to change this kind of culture.

The Current Business Model and Narcissists

Steve Jobs has been called the greatest businessman the world has ever seen and the best CEO of this generation. But he’s also the same man who would yell at people for 30 minutes straight; cut in front of his employees at lunchtime; berate hospitality and restaurant staff; park in handicapped spaces; call HR personnel people with a “mediocre mentality;” and told his staff how much they “sucked.”

Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs didn’t just create a Hollywood hit: It created a manual for any bosses seeking a hall pass for their temper tantrums. In other words, it’s okay to tell your employees that their work is shit and to park your Mercedes across two handicapped parking spaces—as long as the result is a financially successful product.

Somewhere along the way, it seems that Silicon Valley decided that internet connectivity matters more than human connectivity; that a surfeit of technical intelligence can make up for a dearth of emotional intelligence. After all, if it worked for a genius like Jobs, it can’t be that bad.

For instance, Mark Zuckerberg, one of the richest men in the world, famously ousted his friend Eduardo Saverin from Facebook. He also stole his business idea from the Winklevoss twins. “Yeah, I’m going to fuck them,” he told a friend over IM about the pair. “Probably in the ear.”

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel wrote several misogynistic-sounding emails when he was in college to his fraternity brothers. Once, Spiegel was so angry with his parents, he reportedly cut himself out of family photos.

Twitter’s co-founders back-stabbed each other repeatedly: Founder Noah Glass was booted out of the company. Ev Williams and Jack Dorsey were both given, and then stripped of, the CEO title because of their abusive behavior.

Mark Suster, a prominent Los Angeles-based investor, isn’t sure what to make of assholes in business. He lists “integrity” as a bonus characteristic when it comes to top entrepreneurs’ DNA. “I believe that integrity and honesty are very important to most venture capital investors,” he wrote on his blog, Both Sides of the Table, “unfortunately, I don’t believe that they are required to make a lot of money.”

Tom McNichol wrote in the Atlantic: “CEOs, middle managers and wannabe masters of the universe are currently devouring the Steve Jobs biography and thinking to themselves: ‘See! Steve Jobs was an asshole and he was one of the most successful businessmen on the planet. Maybe if I become an even bigger asshole I’ll be successful like Steve.’”

A University of Iowa study, “Perpetuating Abusive Supervision: Third-Party Reactions to Abuse in the Workplace”, found “when a supervisor’s performance outcomes are high, abusive behavior tends to be overlooked when they evaluate that supervisor’s effectiveness.”  In other words, while people might not want to be friends with an abusive, overbearing boss, they’ll tolerate their behavior as long as they are productive.

All the media attention that’s given to Jobs and his legacy, as well as political figures like Donald Trump, leads us to believe that all successful leaders are charismatic. But if we broadened the spotlight to include every manager on earth, we’d see that charisma is generally a poor predictor of successful leadership.

Charisma is sometimes merely a cover for “dark” personality traits like narcissism because narcissists are especially skilled at managing the impression they make on other people. Chamorro-Premuzic estimates that between 20% and 30% of charismatic leaders are also narcissists.

So it seems that abusive, narcissistic bosses are alive and doing well in the business world (and politics), and even exalted by the media.

Theo Veldsman of the University of Johannesburg has published a study on the growth and impact of toxic leadership on organizations. He contends that “there is a growing incidence of toxic leadership in organizations across the world.” Veldsman says that anecdotal and research evidence shows that one out of every five leaders is toxic, and he argues according to his research, that is closer to three out of every ten leaders.

Veldsman describes toxic leadership as “ongoing, deliberate intentional actions by a leader to undermine the sense of dignity, self-worth and efficacy of an individual. This results in exploitative, destructive, devaluing and demeaning work experiences.” He goes on to say that a toxic organization is one that “erodes, disables and destroys the physiological, psychosocial and spiritual well being of the people who work in it permanently and deliberately.”

Paul Babiak’s book Snakes in Suits profiles how some functional psychopaths can fake it until they make it up the corporate ladder through charm and guile, pointing out how statistically significant evidence shows psychopaths are overrepresented in corporate America.

Roy Libit, writing in journal the Academy of Management Executive “The long-term organizational impact of destructively narcissistic managers,” concluded, “A significant number of managers have a degree of destructive narcissism {DN) in their personalities.”

Libit says destructive narcissism particularly limits the ability of managers to work effectively with colleagues and subordinates. Their arrogance, sense of entitlement, lack of concern for others’ feelings, devaluation of others’ abilities, and desire for the limelight generally seriously compromise their ability to work in teams. Moreover, they not only do a poor job of developing people but alienate subordinates as a result of their devaluation of others, insistence on having their way, lack of empathy, and willingness to exploit others. “Individuals who continue to work for a DN manager are likely to be promoted; the best people are likely to leave,” Libit says.

Furthermore, the good ideas of subordinates are likely to be disparaged lest they draw attention away from the narcissistic manager. Meanwhile, no one dares to criticize the DN manager’s ideas, so both creativity and critical assessment of ideas are crippled. In sum, DN managers are markedly compromised in their ability to work with subordinates and peers.

Final Thoughts

While some leaders may exhibit overconfidence and some signs of narcissism that doesn’t rise to the level that harms organizations or create unethical organizational cultures, those responsible for hiring and promoting leaders who exhibit these characteristics in the extreme should be aware of the possible (and some would argue probable) permanent harm they can inflict on people and their organizations.

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