Mind of the Manager

What works and what doesn't in the workplace

The Unfortunate Appeal of Narcissists in Management

Key elements of narcissism can be helpful for managerial success.

Are narcissists over-represented in the ranks of management? Data on this issue is hard to find, perhaps nonexistent. Yet for a variety of reasons related to the nature of the condition and the qualities that often help one succeed in management, it’s reasonable to assume there’s ample narcissist representation.

 

Per the definition from this publication: “Narcissistic Personality Disorder involves arrogant behavior, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration – all of which must be consistently evident at work and in relationships.”  Basic narcissism is defined as a “less extreme version” of the disorder. For purposes of this article, I’d include both the milder condition as well as the more serious disorder.

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 What are some of the hallmarks of the narcissistic personality? Four key characteristics include:

 - Need for admiration and power

- Grandiosity / exaggeration

- Manipulativeness

- Lack of empathy

 Based on four decades of experiences and observations in the work force, including more than two decades of Fortune 500 company management, I’d conclude, unfortunately, that these four qualities can also be useful for management success. Am I saying that all managers possess them?  Not at all - many successful managers are among the most straightforward, empathetic people I’ve known. But can these four qualities at times be valuable in gaining success in the grindingly competitive business world? No doubt they can.

 Let’s consider each of the four, and the way it can translate effectively into the management environment.

Need for admiration and power - The management population is to some extent a self-selected one. Many extremely talented, intelligent people in business choose not to go into management for a variety of reasons - often involving the stress, difficulty and long hours the role requires. But for those who have a need for admiration and power, these qualities are clearly benefits that management offers - in increasing amounts the higher one rises in an organization. Do all people go into management for this reason? Naturally not.  But for some who like being the center of attention - who enjoy presenting, public speaking, the limelight - management, like a well-tailored suit, is a good fit.

Grandiosity / Exaggeration - Business, being a highly competitive environment, values people of "vision," strategic thinkers whose insights help companies gain an edge in the marketplace.  Grandiosity can easily be confused with vision.  Both qualities involve "thinking big," and even when grandiose thoughts contain more exaggeration than substance, they still seem impressive when delivered eloquently in an effective presentation. 

Manipulativeness - In the maneuvering required to gain, maintain and exercise power, keen political skills are a valuable asset.  Being able to adeptly "read" an environment and manipulate it to one's own advantage is a helpful skill, especially when numerous people are angling for a small number of coveted, highly compensated positions.

Lack of empathy - No one ever said management was an easy job.  At times managers at all levels (and especially in senior ranks) have to do extraordinarily difficult things - terminations, layoffs, regorganizations, etc. - that affect the careers and livelihood of many, sometimes very close friends.  To the extent you're not encumbered by undue empathy, feelings of guilt and self-recrimination in such situations, that's helpful baggage not to carry. 

In short, there's a confluence between key aspects of the narcissistic personality and key qualities that help contribute to management success.  While data on the prevalance of narcissism is a bit nebulous (6% of the population is a figure often cited for Narcissistic Personality Disorder), 1 in 16 seems to me a modest count when considering narcissism in senior management ranks - though admittedly this is an entirely unscientific estimate, and I believe this would be a worthwhile topic for rigorous academic study.

Lastly, why do I say the "unfortunate" appeal of narcissists in management?  Why is this mutual attraction - of narcissists to the role, and of hiring managers to certain narcissists - not a productive one?  It's a simple answer: Because the very best managers, the very best leaders, are focused on the needs of others - their customers, employees, shareholders, etc. - while narcissists are ultimately most focused on themselves.  These are fundamentally different agendas and over the long term will come in conflict.  What is best for a narcissistic individual will rarely be what is best for his or her organization.

How can hiring managers (and boards of directors, HR departments, etc.) avoid placing narcissists in positions of power?

It's not simple, due to narcissists' charm, grandiosity and ability to manipulate, but to the extent that hiring entities have known an individual over a long period of time and can vouch for his or her character... or can focus on tangible, verifiable accomplishments rather than general impressions and force of personality... such filters can help organizations make the best decisions.

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Victor Lipman recently retired from the corporate world after 25 years with one of America's largest life insurance companies. He writes about management from a psychological perspective.

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