The Advantages (and Disadvantages) of Being Narcissistic

August 2, 2015 by Ken Nowack

“I will always cherish the initial misconceptions I had about you.”

Unknown

Do you know anyone who fits the description below?

Narcissistic: Demonstrates impairments in personality functioning (either in excessive reference to others for self-esteem or goal setting based on gaining approval from others) and impairments in interpersonal functioning (impaired empathy or relationships largely superficial) as well as antagonism characterized by grandiosity and attention seeking.

If so, here are some fun new facts to hold onto about these individuals (don’t tell them because they already know it).

Narcissism Helps People To Get Ahead in Careers

An interesting study just published by Bart Willie and colleagues (2012) from Ghent University explored how aberrant personality tendencies are associated with career and financial success1.  The authors used a well-established five factor personality inventory called the NEO PI-R on a sample of college alumni (257) and followed them for 15 years.

Several findings were noteworthy:

  • FFM aberrant personality tendencies were highly stable across time, with test-retest correlations ranging from .61 (Narcissistic) to .73 (Avoidant).
  • Obsessive-Compulsive tendency was largely unrelated to career outcomes.
  • Antisocial and Narcissistic characteristics tended toward higher hierarchical and financial attainment (i.e., they rose higher in job levels and made the most money).
  • FFM aberrant personality tendencies showed incremental validity in the prediction of career outcomes beyond FFM general traits.
  • With regard to income and number of subordinates, the FFM Avoidant tendency clearly outperformed Antisocial and Narcissistic tendencies (but in a negative way—those who were more apt to be socially inhibited, sensitive to negative evaluation and feeling inadequate do not rise in organizations nor make as much money over the course of their careers).

Organizational psychopaths are generally more motivated, competitive, political and better than other leaders to rise in the organization. They are more motivated because they are turned on by power and prestige. They are equipped for career success because they lack a genuine concern for others, are ruthless at times and prepared to lie to get what they want, and typically present a charming façade and appear to be an ideal leader (at least initially). These results are interesting in light of several findings suggesting that narcissistic leaders might rise in organizations but they are certainly not valued.

Narcissism Predicts the Emergence of Group Leadership (In the Beginning)

Do narcissistic individuals have a “leadership advantage” due to their strong sense of self-confidence and assertiveness? One way to answer this question is to review a classic study by Palhaus who explored the emergence of leadership in groups2. His study and findings are summarized below: Two longitudinal studies (7 weeks) explored leadership dynamics in unstructured groups in which participants were strangers. High levels of narcissism predicted making a strong initial impression and being selected as leader. These individuals were subsequently rated negatively by the group as a result of arrogance and high-handedness at the end of the 7-week period.

His findings suggest that just acting confident and speaking up seem to be the initial ingredients for the emergence of leadership. Why they do isn’t really clear because most group theories suggest that people can’t attain influence simply by behaving assertively and forcefully—they really need to have intelligence and skills.

Narcissistic Leaders Hinder Team Performance

Although narcissistic individuals are generally perceived as overly assertive and sometimes arrogant, they are particularly competent at creating an image of a strong, confident and effective leader. As a result, they tend to emerge as leaders in group settings (see above). A recent study by Barbara Nevicka and her colleagues from the University of Amsterdam found evidence for a disconnect between the positive image of narcissists as leaders and the reality of group performance3.

The researchers found that although narcissistic leaders were perceived as effective because of their displays of confidence and authority, their behavior actually inhibited information exchange between group members causing a decrease in team performance. Earlier research in two separate studies (699 people working in groups of 2-5 on a variety of tasks such as problem solving, brainstorming, negotiations) explored who emerged as the leader4. Individual intelligence did not predict team performance but team emotional intelligence did. The more narcissistic team members dominated the group and were unwilling to allow others to participate, the weaker the team performed on these group tasks.

Narcissists Know They’re Obnoxious

New research was conducted by a team of investigators headed by psychologist Erika Carlson at Washington University in St. Louis5. She and her colleagues sought to understand three aspects of narcissism: self-perception, the perception of others and the narcissists’ meta-perceptions — what they think others think about them.

In a series of studies (one with college students and the other with 274 Air Force men and women) the researchers found exactly the same results: The people who ranked highest in narcissism made very positive first impressions. Over time, they were rated increasingly more negative by others and they were mostly accurate in guessing that their colleagues perceived them as more arrogant, less agreeable and inclined to boast about or exaggerate their abilities. However, the high opinion of themselves didn’t change (e.g., they still believed they deserved special favors and treatment) although opinions of them became more negative.

The researcher’s paper opens with a quote from Frank Lloyd Wright, who said: “Early in life, I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no reason to change.” It appears that most narcissists do have an idea that can be obnoxious but that doesn’t seem to alter their superior view of themselves.

Narcissism Is Dangerous for Your Health

Some new research suggests that unhealthy narcissism in men may cause a chronic elevation of stress hormones leading to increased physical illness6. To assess participants’ narcissism, the researchers administered a 40-item narcissism questionnaire that measures five different components of the personality trait. Two of these components are more maladaptive, or unhealthy – exploitativeness and entitlement; and the other three are more adaptive, or healthy – leadership/authority, superiority/arrogance, and self-absorption/self-admiration.

The researchers found that the most toxic aspects of narcissism were indeed associated with higher cortisol in male participants, but not in females. In fact, unhealthy narcissism was more than twice as large a predictor of cortisol in males as in females.

Even after controlling for social support, unhealthy narcissists still had the greatest cortisol reactions. These findings suggest that the stress response is chronically activated in males with unhealthy narcissism potentially leading to increased inflammatory responses associated with long term health problems like cardiovascular disease and cancers.

In the updated “bible” of mental disorders DSM-5, the authors have suggested a revision to the diagnosis of this personality disorder. Just imagine how these people would have felt if they were left out and ignored as a “disorder” in this new edition….Be well….

  1. Willie, B., et al., (2012).  Expanding and reconceptualizing aberrant personality at work: Validity of Five-Factor Model (FFM) aberrant personality tendencies to predict career outcomes.  Personnel Journal, DOI: 10.1111/peps.12016 []
  2. Paulhaus, D. (1998). Interpersonal and intrapsychic adaptiveness of trait self-enhancement: A mixed blessing? Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 197-208 []
  3. Nevicka, B., Ten Velden, F., De Hoogh, A. & Van Vianen, A. (2011). Reality at Odds With Perceptions: Narcissistic Leaders and Group Performance. Psychological Science, 22, 1259-1264 []
  4. Williams Wolley, A et al. (2010). Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science, 330, 686-688 []
  5. Carlson, E., Simnine, S. & Thomas, F. (2011). You probably think this paper’s about you: Narcissists’ perceptions of their personality and reputation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 101(1), Jul 2011, 185-201 []
  6. Reinhard DA, Konrath SH, Lopez WD, Cameron HG (2012) Expensive Egos: Narcissistic Males Have Higher Cortisol. PLoS ONE 7(1): e30858. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030858 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development

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  • Really interesting read Ken. I had to manage my own negative reaction to what I consider narcissistic behavior just to learn from this post…thank you. Happy new year.

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