Narcissistic Leaders – it’s all about them

You have all met them and probably worked for one at some time, perhaps without realising. Initially they appear charming, seem competent, exude warmth, and often have a sense of humour. They are easily confused with extraverts and may even be considered charismatic. But in reality they dislike people, can become aggressive, are highly manipulative and can be a danger to others’ careers and well-being. We are talking about narcissists. I’ve posted about narcissistic leaders before but it’s a topic that keeps coming round. In everyday usage “narcissism” refers to inflated self-importance, egotism, vanity, conceit, or simple selfishness and we are seeing more of it every day and not just in the selfishness of bankers, with their undeserved bonuses. We see the sense of narcissistic entitlement exhibited by wanna-be pop stars and entertainers like Bruce Forsyth who said he had five years of torment wondering if he’d ever get a knighthood! We hear former WAG Nancy Dell’ Ollio’s comment that the TV show she had just been voted off would, without her, be “a Xmas tree without the lights“. You get the picture. It’s all about them. But it’s not just the City and showbiz. Students today are reportedly 40% less empathetic than they were 20 or 30 years ago. The current “Generation Me” is more narcissistic, self-centred and competitive and less concerned with other people’s feelings. One in four Americans in their 20s now scores at the narcissistic end of the Narcissism Personality Inventory scale. So narcissism is all around us so it’s no surprise that it rears its head at work. Narcissists think of themselves as being a lot better than they are and even though they are self-centred they attract followers. This is because they are seen as entertaining and exciting to be around. Because of their self-confidence they believe they are good leaders, project authority and a confident image, and people buy into that. There is evidence that narcissists seem to be able to take over leaderless groups with ease. Their confidence is contagious and the group starts to believe it is doing well. But there is a downside to having a narcissistic leader. Because of their high self-confidence and belief that they are always right they may not share information. When that is crucial to good performance the team will perform badly even though they think their leader is doing a good job. Experiments by Nevicka et al reported in Psychological Science last month showed that leaders with higher scores on narcissism were generally seen as more effective than those with low narcissism scores by their team members. But groups with more narcissistic leaders shared information less and because of that made worse decisions. So it’s good to have confidence in your leader and that will motivate the team but when the narcissistic leader doesn’t share information, dominates discussions and makes all the decisions, then the team will be less successful. And it is probable that the group members’ positive impressions will decline as time goes by. They can shrug off criticism about their behaviour but can’t stand it if people tell them they are not as brilliant or wonderful as they think. After all they prefer to be admired rather than liked. This may be because their over-confident and boastful behaviour is covering up feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem. At least those were the findings from research into narcissistic women who were asked to rate themselves on their self-esteem and levels of narcissism. The questionnaire was then repeated with the women connected to what they thought was a lie detector. Some were told it was on and others it was switched off. For those who scored low on narcissism this made no difference but for those who scored high believing they were attached to a lie detector produced much lower scores of self-esteem. The researchers concluded that most people with high levels of narcissism were compensating for their true feelings of low self-esteem which they normally inflated by claiming to like themselves. Narcissistic behaviour is one element in a cluster of what is called the dark side triad along with psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Of the three it is probably the one with more positive aspects and strongly related to extraversion ie sociable and outgoing, narcissists only showing their negative aggressive side when ignored or no longer admired. If you want to know more about the clinical definitions and see the checklist click here.


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