"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Narcissism may be good in moderation

Jan. 23, 2014
Courtesy of University of Nebraska-Lincoln
and World Science staff

Nar­cis­sism in modera­t­ion is good for lead­er­ship suc­cess, re­search­ers are sug­gest­ing.

Ask most work­ers if they’ve ev­er had a nar­cis­sist for a boss and you’ll hear sto­ries of lead­ers who have tak­en cred­it for oth­ers’ work, made de­ci­sions with­out con­sult­ing oth­ers and used ev­ery op­por­tun­ity to talk about them­selves.

But some schol­ars have ar­gued that the con­fi­dence that comes with nar­cis­sism is es­sen­tial for lead­er­ship suc­cess. Re­search has yielded mixed find­ings. A newly pub­lished study sought to con­clu­sively an­swer the ques­tion: Do nar­cis­sists make good lead­ers?

Re­search­ers re­viewed ex­ist­ing lit­er­a­ture and com­piled past and cur­rent re­search and found: Though nar­cis­sists were more likely to at­tain lead­er­ship po­si­tions, there was no di­rect rela­t­ion­ship be­tween nar­cis­sism and lead­ers’ suc­cess.

The re­search al­so dis­cov­ered a “non­lin­ear” rela­t­ion­ship be­tween nar­cis­sism and lead­er ef­fec­tive­ness us­ing pre­vi­ously un­an­a­lyzed da­ta from Ho­gan As­sess­ment Sys­tems, a Tul­sa, Ok­la., con­sult­ing firm spe­cial­iz­ing in per­son­al­ity as­sess­ment for hir­ing de­ci­sions. Spe­cif­ic­ally, the study found, bosses with ei­ther ex­tremely high or ex­tremely low lev­els of nar­cis­sism were poorer lead­ers.

“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,” said Emily Gri­jalva of the Uni­vers­ity of Il­li­nois, the lead au­thor of the stu­dy. “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.”

Pe­ter Harms, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment in the Uni­vers­ity of Nebraska-Lincoln Col­lege of Busi­ness Ad­min­istra­t­ion and a co-au­thor of the stu­dy, said those with mod­er­ate lev­els of nar­cis­sism have achieved “a nice bal­ance be­tween hav­ing suf­fi­cient lev­els of self-con­fi­dence, but do not man­i­fest the neg­a­tive, an­ti­so­cial as­pects of nar­cis­sism that in­volve put­ting oth­ers down to feel good about them­selves.”

The study was pub­lished this month in the jour­nal Per­son­nel Psy­chol­o­gy.

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Narcissism in moderation is good for leadership success, researchers are suggesting. Ask most workers if they’ve ever had a narcissist for a boss and you’ll hear stories of leaders who have taken credit for others’ work, made decisions without consulting others and used every opportunity to talk about themselves. But some scholars have argued that the confidence that comes with narcissism is essential for leadership success. Research has yielded mixed findings. A newly published study sought to conclusively answer the question: Do narcissists make good leaders? Researchers reviewed existing literature and compiled past and current research and found: Though narcissists were more likely to attain leadership positions, there was no direct relationship between narcissism and leaders’ success. The research also discovered a “nonlinear” relationship between narcissism and leader effectiveness using previously unanalyzed data from Hogan Assessment Systems, a Tulsa, Okla., consulting firm specializing in personality assessment for hiring decisions. Specifically, the study found, bosses with either extremely high or extremely low levels of narcissism were poorer leaders. “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,” said Emily Grijalva of the University of Illinois, the lead author of the study. “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.” Peter Harms, assistant professor of management in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Business Administration and a co-author of the study, said those with moderate levels of narcissism have achieved “a nice balance between having sufficient levels of self-confidence, but do not manifest the negative, antisocial aspects of narcissism that involve putting others down to feel good about themselves.” The study was published this month in the journal Personnel Psychology.