It works for the boss to be a jerk

Many people in leadership positions are narcissists, which can be a good thing in the short term, but might  have disastrous consequences in the long run. (Zapiro)

Many people in leadership positions are narcissists, which can be a good thing in the short term, but might have disastrous consequences in the long run. (Zapiro)

Looking for a narcissist in the workplace? It might be as easy as looking up on the company organogram.

Chances are pretty good that your boss has a whole lot of narcissistic traits. In fact, many people in leadership positions are narcissists, which can be a good thing in the short term, but might  have disastrous consequences in the long run.

“It is not surprising that narcissists become leaders,” noted Amy Brunell, an assistant professor in psychology at Ohio State University, in a study. “Narcissistic people are most likely to emerge as leaders.
They like power, they are egotistical, and they are usually charming and extroverted.”

These are the same qualities that lead people to choose narcissists as their leaders. 

Brunell’s study, which involved more than 430 undergraduate students, found that subjects who scored highly in their desire for power – an important component of narcissism – were more likely to put themselves forward as leaders and were more likely to be recognised as leaders by the rest of the group.

“[Narcissists] are usually very good in short-term situations when meeting people for the first time,” wrote Peter Harms, an assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, when he published his research, “Narcissism and Leadership: Does it Work to be a Jerk?” 

“But the impression they create quickly falls apart. You soon realise that they are nowhere near as good or as smart as they say they are.”

Because of the archetypal image of Narcissus, the Greek figure who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, we have conflated narcissism with those people who are enamoured with their looks and check themselves out in any shiny surface. But narcissism in leaders is much more insidious.

“They can be preoccupied with thoughts and fantasies of their enormous success, power, attractiveness and intelligence,” Emily Grijalva, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, wrote in the journal Personnel Psychology

“They are addicted to others’ admiration. And, in the long run, they’re not very good at maintaining positive, interpersonal relationships with others.”

This is a major handicap in their ability to be effective leaders.

A study at the University of Amsterdam found that, because narcissist-leaders fixated on their own ideas, they did not encourage open communication, which was detrimental to the group as a whole.

The 150 participants were split into groups of three, with a person randomly assigned as group leader. They were asked to select a fictional candidate for a job and, although everyone could offer input, the  final decision was up to the leader.

Each participant was privy to some information about the candidates that the others weren’t, and the study found that the groups led by narcissists picked poorer job candidates.

“Communication – sharing of information, perspectives and knowledge – is essential to making good decisions. In brainstorming groups, project teams, government committees, each person brings something new,” the study’s leader, Barbora Nevicka told Science Daily in 2011. 

But narcissists are often too self-involved to reach out for other opinions. “The narcissistic leaders had a very negative effect on performance,” Nevicka said. “They inhibited communication because of self-centredness and authoritarianism.”

But Harms says narcissism is a continuum: moderate levels of narcissism can allow leaders to have a “nice balance between having sufficient levels of self-confidence, but do not manifest the negative, antisocial aspects of narcissism that involve having to put others down to feel good about themselves”. 

Research at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business found that companies with narcissistic chief executives outperformed those of their less self-involved and egotistical counterparts. This is linked to a narcissist’s inflated ego and their increased appetite for risk. 

Analysing the performance of 235 unique Fortune 500 companies, the researchers found that the companies of narcissistic chief executives had higher earnings-per-share and share prices.

It must be said, though, that the research methodology was somewhat dubious: they identified narcissists as those with larger annual report photos and whose companies had the greater discrepancies in employee benefits.

Sarah Wild is the science editor of the Mail & Guardian.

The sociopaths in suits

Could it be that those narcissistic traits are a sign of something deeper? The signs displayed by a sociopath can overlap with the traits of someone with narcissistic personality disorder. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, a sociopath displays an overblown ego, a sense of superiority, persistently lies and engages in deceit to exploit others, lacks empathy, takes unnecessary risks and repeatedly violates the rights of others by dishonesty and misrepresentation. 

Harvard Medical School-based psychologist Dr Martha Stout, who wrote the book The Sociopath Next Door, says four percent of the global population are sociopaths. Which just might mean that the narcissist in the office next door just might be something even worse. — M&G reporter

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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