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The Personality of the Workaholic and the Issue of "Self"

The terrible trio of perfectionism, narcissism and workaholism

Workaholic name badgeA study published this month explored the personality of workaholics. Of interest was the relation of narcissism and workaholism. That grandiose sense of self-importance that seems to be present in epidemic proportions in our society is related to the worst aspects of workaholism, so was perfectionism. I think these results reveal something interesting about the "self."

In the latest issue of Personality and Individual Differences, Malissa Clark, Ariel Lelchook and Marcie Taylor (Wayne State University) published a study on the relation of various personality traits with workaholism. Although my "pet subject" is procrastination (those people who just can't seem to get to a task), I'm also interested in those of us who can't seem to let go of work tasks. These "workaholics" are people who work to the exclusion of other life activities, are consumed with thoughts and feelings about work and often do more than is expected at work. Certainly, their lives are not models of "balance."

What caught my attention about this study is the focus on individual differences or personality traits that are related to workaholism. I'm particularly fascinated by the negative influences of narcissism and perfectionism in our lives, as these are traits that seem to be celebrated in many ways in modern American culture. For example, many cultural heroes of popular TV shows, particularly those shows that portray the lives of doctors, lawyers and successful business people, are hard-driving individuals who seem to have no life other than work. What each shares is a grandiose sense of his or her own self-importance that is central to the definition of narcissism.

In their study, Clark and her colleagues analyzed data from a sample of 322 working students, the majority of whom were female (73%), Caucasian (51%) or African American (27%) with an average age of 24 years and who, in addition to their studies, worked 36 hours a week on average. These participants completed self-report measures of the Big Five Personality Traits (Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness), as well as measures of Narcissism, Workaholism, Perfectionism and their tendency to experience positive and negative emotions.

The Results
There were a number of interesting findings in this study. As expected, most of the Big Five traits were related to workaholism: Neuroticism (emotional instability) positively to all aspects of workaholism, Conscientiousness negatively to the impatience component of workaholism, Agreeableness negatively to the compulsion to work, and Openness to experience was positively related to the polychronic control (multi-tasking) component of workaholism.

In terms of the other traits they measured, they found that:

  • Narcissism was positively related to workaholism overall, as well as to the components of workaholism known as impatience ("I seem to be in a hurry and racing against the clock.") and compulsion ("It's hard for me to relax when I'm not working.").
  • The high standards dimension of perfectionism (high expectations of self) was related to overall workaholism.
  • The discrepancy dimension of perfectionism (perceived gap between one's performance expectations and self-evaluation of current performance) was a significant predictor of all components of workaholism.
  • Finally, negative affect (NA) and positive affect (PA) demonstrated different relations with components of workaholism. NA (e.g., sadness, anger) was related to overall workaholism, as well as the components of impatience and compulsion. PA (e.g., happiness, joy) was related to the polychronic control component of workaholism.

Implications and concluding thoughts
Like all correlational studies, the relations among the variables leads us to much speculation and raises many new questions. Certainly the issue of causation cannot be addressed, and it's important to note this as the authors dutifully do in their closing section of the paper.

Overall, the authors have contributed to the literature by including traits (narcissism, perfectionism and affect) beyond the Big Five that are typically discussed. In doing this, they demonstrated that each of these traits is related to workaholism or at least some component of it.

Where I disagree with the authors is in their closing comments where they write that their "Results suggest that workaholism may have both positive and negative components" (p. 790). They base this conclusion on their analysis of the structure of the workaholism questionnaire, which produced a 3-component solution. Two of these components are seen as negative (i.e., impatience and compulsion), while the third is seen as a more positive component of workaholism known as polychronic control, or the preference to juggle and be in control of many tasks at once. The thing is, while the authors refer to this as multi-tasking, it has a much more negative connotation when taking into account items that make up this component such as "I prefer to do most things myself rather than ask for help." There are certainly control issues here that are not so positive, even if the measure of Positive Affect correlated with this component.

My point is, neither perfectionism nor workaholism has a positive side. Although it can be argued that perfectionism and/or workaholism result in improved performance in some organizational circumstances, both result in diminished relationships outside of work and undermine well-being overall. Each is harmful to us.

What I think we see in this study is another confirmation of how a number of negative ways of being in life coexist. In fact, I think we see these relations between perfectionism, narcissism and workaholism because they are all related to a third underlying variable - a weak sense of self that is plagued with many irrational thoughts (e.g., "I must be perfect to have worth," "I must work to have worth.") and an overcompensation for this low self-esteem with a paradoxical narcissism (individuals protect their weak sense of self with an overcompensation that portrays the self in a grandiose fashion).

It's all a matter of degree of course. It's important, even essential, to work hard, to set standards for oneself and to value self. Problems in functioning arise when we are:

  • unable to stop working and only find value in self through work (workaholism),
  • set unrealistic expectations for our performance (perfectionism), and
  • value and pursue power and self-importance to support our grandiose self-conceptions (narcissism).

Each of these problems, I believe, has its roots in our sense of self. Nurturing a sense of self as an autonomous worthwhile being apart from our accomplishments or our failures is a key developmental task. It is ours, the task eternal.

Clark, M.A., Lelchook, A.M., & Taylor, M.L. (2010). Beyond the Big Five: How narcissism, perfectionism, and dispositional affect relate to workaholism. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 786-791.

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