It's scary to think about how many serious narcissists are lurking in the workplace, and how many occupy powerful positions. Experts in narcissistic personality disorder—the most pathological form of narcissism—say NPD sufferers go for jobs where they can do most harm. As one told the Financial Times: "Narcissists gravitate towards professions where they can control people and elicit adulation. They are more likely to work in politics, finance, or medicine than in shoemaking.”
People who take every opportunity to talk about themselves, who take credit for other people's work, and demean colleagues to make themselves feel better are a problem in all lines of work, though. And the tough thing for companies is that getting rid of such poisonous characters isn't easy. Often, narcissistic types initially seem attractive, and recruiters are drawn to heavy self-promoters during interviews. It's the candidates who show modesty—that is, a capacity for backing down when they're wrong—who tend to get left behind.
Having said that, there's long been a school of thought holding that a certain amount of self-love is a good quality for a leader. Freud wrote that “the leader himself needs love no one else, he may be of a masterful nature, absolutely narcissistic, self-confident, and independent.” Narcissism, despite its negative connotations, has been associated with charisma and visionary leadership, with taking risks, and acting with superior will.
A new paper tries to make sense of this contradictory picture—the way the same trait is both demonized and celebrated. Analyzing the literature on narcissism and company performance, it argues that a moderate narcissism may not be a bad thing, and that too little self-regard may be as unhelpful as too much.
"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," says lead author Emily Grijalva at the University of Illinois. "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 paper argues that companies should look for people with sufficient self-confidence, but not so much that they operate anti-socially. Too much narcissism will likely undermine effectiveness, as it sucks initiative and motivation from the team. It also suggests employers be wary of unstructured interviews, which tend to give narcissists a way of being extrovert while hiding their dark side.
It may be that narcissism is on the increase in the knowledge economy, because credit for tasks is easier to appropriate unfairly. We wrote here about a few ways that people can cope. The shorter version: Watch your back.
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