The last time I discussed some aspects of the dark side of personality, in general. Today, I’d like to focus on the substance of the recent Wall Street Journal article that discussed my work: How can the dark side help people get ahead at work? (I’m going to focus on narcissism in this post, but I plan to focus on other dark side personality traits, such as Machiavellianism, psychopathy, schizotypal personality, or paranoid personality in later posts.)

Recall that when talking about the dark side of personality, I mean explicitly sub-clinical levels of these personality characteristics. That is, when discussing narcissists on this blog, I am definitely not talking about individuals with potentially diagnosable Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I am instead talking about individuals with a level of narcissism that is not typically dysfunctional, but could cause an individual some problems, especially when that person is in a difficult situation or under considerable stress.

To understand how narcissism can help people get ahead at work, we need to be clear about what narcissism is. The narcissist typically feels entitled—he or she deserves better outcomes than other people. The narcissist also typically has strong beliefs in his or her own superiority—the narcissist really believes that he or she is better, more capable, more skilled, more charming, and just more than other people. They are also grandiose, and are therefore likely to engage in big, symbolic gestures. And narcissists are dominant—they like to be in control of social situations and other people.

Some of these characteristics can help directly lead to advancement. For instance, a degree of dominance is generally necessary for advancing into leadership roles. In order to get power, you usually need to first like power and want it for yourself. A narcissist’s characteristic dominance makes liking and wanting power very natural. Additionally, narcissists are often described (along with individuals high on the other Dark Triad traits of psychopathy and Machiavellianism) as superficially charming, partially because they have strong tendencies to self-enhance. That is, narcissists often come across to other people quite positively in short-term or otherwise limited interactions. One of the main ways of assigning people to jobs—the job interview—is just such a short-term interaction. And unsurprisingly, narcissists are very good at doing the kinds of things that make interviewers see them as employable. These kinds of self-enhancing, dramatic, and attention-grabbing behaviors by leaders can be perceived by followers as the positive characteristics of charisma and self-confidence, as noted by Babiak and Hare. (Although those authors are explicitly describing psychopaths at work, the behaviors are generally also characteristic of narcissists.)

Beyond all of this, we suspect that narcissism may have important motivational characteristics. For instance, in our empirical study of military cadets, we were surprised to find narcissism positively related to indices of leader development. My coauthor Peter Harms suggests the example of Napoleon to help understand what might be going on here: Napoleon wasn’t known for being a particularly good student, but he probably had some strong narcissistic tendencies. When he decided to become the greatest military leader, he became a voracious reader of works of military history and tactics. It’s not particularly surprising that narcissists, with their unbridled sense of superiority, would be strongly motivated to be the best at what they do.

So, in total, narcissists have some advantages when it comes to getting ahead. They are motivated to seek positions of power and influence, because those positions are consistent with their views of themselves as special and important. Further, their behavior can produce very positive impressions on others, who then perceive them as bold and charismatic leaders. Of course, narcissism isn’t called a “dark side” trait for nothing. In long-term interactions, other people often come to view the narcissist as hostile and arrogant. Excessively narcissistic behavior is likely to contribute to the derailment of a successful career. In a future post, I will detail the downsides of narcissism in more detail, and try to help you steer an effective path between reasonable self-confidence and self-enhancement, and dangerous levels of self-focus.

About the Author

Seth Spain

Seth Spain, Ph.D., an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Binghamton University, is an industrial/organizational psychologist who studies the dark side of work.

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