HR Department

Narcissism: the key to success?

How are narcissism and leadership related? We did some research and came up with some unexpected results.

In the age of ego lovers, where selfie sticks belong in hand luggage and self-promotion on social networks is rewarded with likes, narcissists seem to have an easy time of it. But does their success also apply in the working world? How are narcissism and leadership related? We did some research and came up with some unexpected results.

We all know her: That one person who always thrusts herself into the center of attention. Usually extremely eloquent, always a story about the latest successes ready and never at a loss to interrupt others. This is a typical appearance of the narcissist - science agrees on that. What is also striking is that these individuals often gather a following of deep admirers around them. This is understandable: they are often good speakers, possess charismatic charisma, and have a firm opinion. Just as with their unmistakable strengths, however, narcissists are often distinguished by conspicuous weaknesses. These include a pronounced lack of empathy and a distorted self-image. No wonder, then, that among them are many celebrities, but also failed existences, for therein lies the undoing of narcissism: it promotes successes as well as crashes. How can that be?

Not every show-off hides a narcissist

To understand this, the difference between narcissistic personality traits and narcissistic personality disorder is crucial. While narcissistic personality traits affect individuals who are merely particularly convinced of themselves, those affected by a narcissistic personality disorder suffer from a clinical picture. This is accompanied by a lack of empathy and considerable sensitivity to criticism. The exaggerated idea of one's own superiority is in reality often the result of a fragile self-esteem. But what is the connection between narcissism and professional success? Do we have to worry that our working world is dominated by egocentrics who are incapable of criticism? Only partially - because study leader Emily Grijalva from the University of Illinois came to unexpected conclusions.

New findings on narcissism and leadership

Previously, researchers assumed that success as a manager increased with increasing narcissism. They attributed this to the fact that narcissistically inclined people possess characteristics that have a positive effect on professional success. These include, for example, a self-confident appearance and confidence in their own abilities. This result was also confirmed by study leader Grijalva's work. Unlike previous studies, however, she did not assume in her research that growing narcissism leads to growing success to the same extent. Instead, she additionally included leadership assessments in her research and came to an astonishing conclusion. As the level of narcissism increases, a leader's success initially rises steeply. What is new for science is that after a certain degree of narcissism, success in the job falls off again just as sharply. The success curve resembles an inverted U.

The doom of narcissists

It is interesting to use these results to clarify the strengths and weaknesses of narcissism. "Narcissists score high on extroversion. They have a gift for shining at the first meeting. This gives them a clear advantage in the interview," Grijalva said. At the same time, however, the leadership assessment questionnaires reveal that narcissistic supervisors increasingly lack the ability to reconcile self-image and the image of others. In this context, Grijalva explains, "No matter how employees judge, a narcissist always thinks of himself as a very good boss." Therein lies the pitfall of narcissists. Even if they appear confident and convince with big speeches, they neglect to reflect on their own person and recognize weaknesses. However, this is crucial for professional success, to work on oneself and to develop further. Therefore, if these skills are missing, the new boss can disappear just as quickly as he appeared. What consequences can we draw from the results?

The mediocre narcissist

Grijalva's research appeals to companies to be cautious about developing executive selection practices based on narcissism strengths. Often, individuals who exhibit strong narcissistic traits perform particularly well in these procedures. But these do not equal better bosses. "If you look at the average, narcissists are neither the better nor the worse bosses," Grijalva said. "The ideal boss is narcissistic en masse." 

To be sure, her work does not contradict many previous theories that emphasize the success-enhancing qualities of narcissists. However, she broadens the perspective on narcissism and success to include the crucial criterion of the right measure. Overestimating oneself, just like underestimating one's own abilities, can get in the way of a career as a leader. The fact that the most promising form of narcissism seems to lie in mediocrity seems strangely ironic for a group of people who always strive for superiority.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall...

So is narcissism the key to success? Yes and no. As a result, we hold that both employees and employers must demonstrate skill when it comes to recognizing the golden mean of narcissism. A large dose of self-confidence and assertiveness is certainly necessary in today's working world if you want to get to the top. However, it is not enough to talk big. If you want to be at the top, you have to follow up with great deeds. So instead of constantly admiring yourself through the selfie filter of Instagram, an honest look in the mirror and in the faces of your colleagues is crucial for sustainable success in your professional life.

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