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Why Do Narcissistic Employees Get Promoted Fast?

Research identifies mechanisms underlying narcissists’ promotability at work.

Key points

  • People high in narcissism seem to have considerable success in many domains in life, including at work—for example, they get promoted fast.
  • Narcissistic employees’ promotability may be due to their impression management skills and, especially, their displays of power.
  • Using the same techniques narcissists employ, such as displaying more power, may help non-narcissistic employees get the promotions they deserve.
Source: markusspiske/Pixabay

Narcissism is a personality trait associated with grandiosity, superiority, specialness, envy, vanity, sense of entitlement, exploitativeness, exhibitionism, lack of empathy, self-absorption, and self-admiration. People who are high in narcissism are often preoccupied with power and status. Narcissistic employees, for instance, are preoccupied with power and status in the workplace, and many of them succeed in climbing to top positions in organizations—and fast.

A recent investigation by Nevicka and Sedikides, published in the August 2021 issue of the Journal of Personality, examines mechanisms that might explain why narcissistic employees (compared to others) are more likely to get promoted at work.

Displays of Power or Impression Management?

Before examining the recent research, a little background:

Suppose an employee who possesses little power decides to act with great power (e.g., take greater risks at work or behave confidently and forcefully). These displays of power at work may act as signals. They could signal that, say, one is competent, knows how to gain power and exercise power, is a natural leader, and/or has the potential to succeed in a position higher up in the organizational hierarchy. Such displays of power are one way to get promoted.

Another way to get promoted is through impression management—using tactics like self-promotion (e.g., emphasizing one’s excellent performance and accomplishments) and ingratiation (e.g., flattery, doing favors, being very agreeable). Of course, such impression-management tactics require social skills and emotional intelligence. Otherwise, supervisors will likely see through the act and feel manipulated.

Previous research suggests people with Dark Triad personality traits (psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism) are quite skilled in impression management. Narcissists, in particular, tend to be socially perceptive (i.e., sensitive to rank and status). They are good at impression management and affiliating with and impressing high-status individuals.

So, which of the two mechanisms explains why employees with a narcissistic personality disorder or narcissistic tendencies are more likely than others to climb the corporate ladder and emerge as leaders? For an answer, let's review the research by Sedikides and Nevicka.

Investigating Promotability and Narcissistic Personality

The first two investigations examined the correlation between promotability and narcissistic personality. The third was an experiment on the causal connection between the personal sense of power and the likelihood of getting promoted.

Study 1

Sample: 166 employees (average age of 40 years; 72 percent women) and 93 supervisors (average of 44 years of age; 52 percent women).

Measures: Employees’ level of narcissism was measured using the 40-item Narcissistic Personality Inventory (e.g., “I am an extraordinary person”). Employees’ promotability was assessed using, “This employee has a good chance of climbing the organizational ladder,” and “I would recommend this employee for a promotion.”

Study 2

Sample: 128 employees (average age of 35 years; 60 percent women) and 85 supervisors (38 years, average age; 69 percent men).

Measures: The 16-item Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI-16) was administered. Promotability was measured as previously described. Self-promotion was assessed by asking employees to rate the frequency of behaviors like making “a positive event that you are responsible for appear greater than it actually is.” Ingratiation was assessed using six items (e.g., “Spend time listening to your supervisor’s personal problems even if you have no interest in them.”). An 8-item power scale evaluated a sense of power (e.g., “In my work team, I think I have a great deal of power.”).

Study 3

Sample: 181 supervisors (mean age of 38 years; 55 percent women).

Method: Participants received a description of a narcissistic employee and his/her answers on a questionnaire (corresponding to either high power or low power). Participants were instructed to imagine they were managers who, based on the information provided, needed to make promotion recommendations.

Source: DanaTentis/Pixabay

Why Narcissists Get Promoted

The results showed:

Both self-promotional behaviors and personal sense of power correlated with employee narcissism. But there was more support for the display of power hypothesis (perceiving oneself as powerful and exercising power) than for the impression management hypothesis (use of self-promotion tactics and skills).

The results of the third investigation, where the display of power was manipulated, suggested employees with narcissistic personality demonstrating a high (vs. low) personal sense of power were more likely to be promoted.

As the authors note, these results agree with the “implicit theory of leadership,” which suggests individuals showing behaviors prototypical of leadership (e.g., ambition, mental strength) are more likely to be seen as leaders. The data also agree with the “leadership identity theory.” This theory argues, “leadership develops through a series of claiming and granting behaviors in which a person asserts oneself as either a leader or a follower in the course of social interactions.”

How to Get Promoted at Work

In general, making promotability assessments is more difficult than many other types of assessments (e.g., performance review). Why? Because promotability assessments are based less on concrete information regarding an employee’s success on a particular project and more on intangible qualities, like cues of future potential. These cues, of course, include displays of power, something narcissists tend to know how to do very well.

Readers who desire a promotion, therefore, might consider applying the above findings to their own situation. This means acting with more power, confidence, and authority at work.

Of course, this advice is not applicable to all workplaces because some workplaces prize cooperative, friendly, and helpful behavior over displays of power. In these environments, a more communal person (even a communal narcissist) might have more success.

Nevertheless, many companies place greater value on agency than communality; thus, they reward displays of power, intelligence, and competence. So, to get promoted in these work environments, you may need to look beyond your current work assignments and imagine you are leading your team (or at least working with, not for, the current leader); think about how you, as a future leader, would do things differently (e.g., ways you would motivate the employees or assign duties).

Your behavior could convey to your boss or supervisor that you are interested in and even capable of assuming greater responsibility at work—that you are more than qualified for a promotion.

LinkedIn image: fizkes/Shutterstock