Report: Narcissists have what it takes to lead – if they aren’t too all-about-me

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Posted: Thursday, January 23, 2014 12:00 am

Can’t you see, it’s me, me, me, all about me?

Leaders who think they’re the cream of the corporation don’t necessarily inspire confidence or make good decisions, but neither do insecure or self-effacing managers who — aw, shucks — won’t take credit for their successes, according to a new study.

Do narcissists make good workplace leaders? It’s an ongoing debate with supporters on both sides.

Some researchers say narcissism is essential for leadership, while others say it alienates workers. Who wants to work for leaders who make decisions without consulting anyone or can’t stop singing their own praises?

The traits associated with narcissism, which can include a high degree of self-importance, confidence and attention-seeking behavior, can make for effective leadership — if they are expressed in moderation, concludes “Narcissism and Leadership,” which appears this month in the Personnel Psychology journal.

On the other hand, bosses with extremely high or extremely low levels of narcissism are less likely to make good leaders, said Peter Harms, assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-author of the report, which assembled past and current research to draw its conclusions.

Just like your mother told you: neither a wallflower nor a braggart be.

“A moderate level of leader narcissism is most effective,” said Emily Grijalva, the report’s lead author and a graduate student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“If the leader’s grandiosity and sense of authority and entitlement are too low, then people will not want to follow,” said Grijalva. “But if these tendencies are too high, the leader will be perceived as arrogant, exploitive, self-centered and unable to look out for the best interests of the group — and people will again not want to follow.”

Put another way, “thumping your chest” and calling attention to yourself isn’t necessarily a negative.

But when it’s paired with the tendency to denigrate others, “propping yourself up by putting other people down, people won’t want to work for you,” said Blaine Gaddis, who also helped author the report.

“Saying ‘I’m smarter than you,’ is one thing, but saying ‘I’m smarter than all you idiots,’ plays a lot differently,” said Gaddis, manager of international research at Hogan Assessment Systems Inc. The Tulsa, Okla.-based company, which develops assessment tests for use by employers and other groups, provided researchers with raw data for the study.

While narcissists on average are not better leaders, “they still think they are,” Grijalva said.

Often their confidence, social dominance and persuasive abilities play well during interviews, which in turn help propel them into leadership roles, Grijalva said.

“Overall, narcissists are more likely to be chosen as leaders ... because narcissists are more extroverted than non-narcissists,” she added.

Said Harms: “They are usually very good in short-term situations when meeting people for the first time. But the impression they create quickly falls apart. 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.”

In the workplace, curbing undesirable narcissistic tendencies through feedback, executive coaching or seminars can help potential and current leaders become more effective managers, Gaddis said. “Sometimes they need to be told, ‘You don’t need to brag so much,’ ” or they need to be coached on the importance of promoting other people, Gaddis said.

That said, some narcissistic traits can be a function of age, and may disappear with a few wrinkles.

Younger individuals may have a sense of overconfidence because of a lack of experience, Gaddis said. Once they get some experience under their belt, they may realize they’re not the “game-changer” they thought they were.

Then again, some organizations or industries may want to hire job candidates with more traits associated with narcissism.

Startups in need of confident, risk-taking or persuasive employees may want to hire candidates who exhibit those qualities, while more staid environments may want to screen them out.

A study of West Point cadets, for example, found that the narcissists in that population were more ready to learn, Harms said. “There, narcissism became a motivating factor.”

More research is needed, Grijalva said, to determine if narcissists function “better in some leadership situations than others.”

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