Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Narcissists Feel Like Better Leaders

Are narcissists really the good leaders they seem to be?

Narcissists are people who dream big.  They generally think of themselves as being more intelligent and exceptional than they are.  Because of their high levels of self-confidence, they are also tapped to be leaders in many situations. 

Not only are narcissists asked to be leaders, but their confidence makes them feel like good leaders to others.  People in a group want to feel like the group is doing a good job.  Narcissists project a confident image, and that confidence is infectious.  The rest of the group comes to believe that their leader is doing well.

So, should we just let the narcissists take over?

A paper by Barbora Nevicka, Femke Ten Velden, Annebel De Hoogh, and Annelies Van Vianen in the October, 2011 issue of Psychological Science suggests that there might also be a downside to narcissistic leaders.

Because narcissists are so confident in their abilities and opinions, they may keep group members from sharing information.  In situations where shared information is crucial to good performance, a narcissistic leader may cause a group to be very confident that their leader is a good one and yet they may perform poorly.

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To test this possibility, groups of three people were asked to evaluate candidate for job.  Before getting together as a group, a leader was selected at random.  The group leader was the one who had to make the final decision in the task.  The participants in this study also filled out an inventory that measured their level of narcissism. 

 Each group member was given a list of 9 characteristics for each of three job candidates.  Some of those characteristics were given to each group member, but some were given only to individuals.  The descriptions were cleverly set up so that one job candidate would look best if only the information that all group members shared was considered, but that if the group pooled all of its information, then a second job candidate would actually be the best one. 

 Two results emerged from this study.

 First, group leaders who had a high score on the narcissism scale, were generally seen as more effective leaders than group leaders who had a low score on the narcissism scale.  That is the typical result from studies of narcissism and leadership.

 Second, groups with more narcissistic leaders tended to share less information than those with less narcissistic leaders, and as a result, they made worse decisions.  So, even though the groups with narcissistic leaders felt better about their group leader, they actually performed more poorly than those with less narcissistic leaders.

What does this mean?

There are often two distinct issues in group performance.  First, groups do need to have some confidence that they are going to succeed.  That confidence can increase motivation to continue with a difficult task.  In that way, a narcissistic leader can be good.

However, if the group needs to share information in order to succeed, then narcissistic leaders need to curb their tendency to dominate the discussion and decision making and let others share information.  Otherwise, the group runs the risk of rushing to judgment without key information that might lead to better performance.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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