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


Do you know anyone that 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 facts to hold onto about these individuals (don’t tell them because they already know it).

Narcissism is Useful for 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 groups ((Paulhaus, D. (1998). Interpersonal and intrapsychic adaptiveness of trait self-enhancement: A mixed blessing? Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 197-208)).

His study and findings can be summarized below: Two longitudinal studies (7 weeks) explored leadership dynamics in unstructured groups in which participants were strangers. 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 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 performance ((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)).

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 leader ((2.Williams Wolley, A et al. (2010).

Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science, 330, 686-688)). 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 conducted by a team of investigators headed by psychologist Erika Carlson at Washington University in St. Louis 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 ((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)). In their 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 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 newer research suggests that unhealthy narcissism in men may cause a chronic elevation of stress hormones leading to increased physical illness ((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)). 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 significantly associated with higher levels of blood cortisol in male participants, but not in females. In fact, unhealthy narcissism was more than twice as large a predictor of the stress hormone cortisol in males as in females.

Even after controlling for social support, unhealthy male 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 revision of the “bible” of mental disorders DSM-5 the authors have revised 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….


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, Relate, Selection

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