Are All Narcissists Really That Toxic?

New research shows that narcissism may be helpful in the right circumstances.

Posted Mar 09, 2019

When you think of a narcissistic person, you imagine someone who is almost impossibly self-centered, grandiose, and attention-seeking. Being around such an individual should, therefore, make life quite miserable. Perhaps you have a relative who insists on taking center stage at every family event. Even if the event is in honor of someone else, this person somehow aims to become the protagonist. At a reception honoring the birthday of a beloved aunt, this person gets up and gives a five-minute speech that is less about the aunt and more about the speaker. Meanwhile, on other occasions, this individual’s lack of empathy for you and everyone else contributes to a prolonged rocky relationship.

New research on narcissism in the workplace by University of Hohenheim’s (Germany) Hannah Helfrich and Loughborough University’s (UK) Erik Dietl (2019) investigates the question of whether narcissism always has to be this toxic. Can people who constantly seek attention and self-advancement somehow be turned into individuals who make a positive difference in their surroundings? Helfrich and Dietl believe the answer might be “yes” if narcissism is looked at in terms of its facets.

Looking at narcissism, not from a pathological but from a motivational perspective, the Germany-UK researchers differentiate between admiration and rivalry within the construct of narcissism. As they note, “On the one hand, narcissists are highly motivated to approach desirable outcomes and their self-assuredness can equip them with enormous energy… On the other hand, narcissists’ motivation to protect their self from losing its grandiosity, which often triggers a devaluation of others, may hold back their progress and quench people” (p. 259). The admiration factor, then, helps narcissists advance the cause of whatever group they’re a part of. The rivalry factor means that they try their level best to “quench” others in the group. The speech from that attention-grabbing relative, from this perspective, could help everyone feel better about your aunt but could also annoy everyone else who wanted to make their own celebratory remarks.

Two perspectives informed the Helfrich and Dietl study of employees and their bosses. Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a motivational perspective proposing that the feeling of being in control provides you with the greatest satisfaction, particularly in the workplace. In the context of work, the researchers propose that having this kind of intrinsic motivation will lead employees to feel empowered and to be able to exercise their own voice. The second perspective, the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Concept (NARC), differentiates between those two facets of narcissism. Leaders, however, also have their own theories about what they want in their employees. The Implicit Followership Theory (IFT) of leaders proposes that the “perceptions, evaluations, and actions (of the leader)… represent one of the most powerful contextual factors influencing workplace processes” (p. 260). Again, looking at situations outside the workplace, the same processes can operate within a social group. The family “leaders” at that celebratory event might be pleased that this relative has given such a lengthy, if not self-centered, tribute to your aunt. The admiration factor trumps rivalry and everything will go more smoothly as a result.  

Going into more detail, Helfrich and Dietl describe narcissistic admiration in terms of three interrelated domains. People striving for admiration strive to seem unique, engage in grandiose fantasies, and rely heavily on being charming. Narcissistic rivalry, by contrast, involves striving to be better than others while also devaluing them, and seeking their goals of supremacy in an aggressive manner; in other words, clawing their way to the top. In the process, those high in narcissistic rivalry behave in hostile and insensitive ways that in turn lead others to reject and criticize them. This second facet of narcissism, then, can be seen as highly self-defeating. When these facets of narcissism are crossed with motivation, the authors note, those high in admiration turn out to show the self-assured and dominant behaviors that allow them to feel empowered. They will, in turn, be successful, admired by others, and praised so that their sense of grandiosity becomes even grander. Those high in the rivalry component will become less empowered, feel threatened by the success of others, lower in self-esteem, and ashamed of their own failures. Having a voice, furthermore, allows people to feel more engaged in their work, and they will have better relationships with their leaders. Intrinsic motivation of workers will further be enhanced when leaders support their autonomy, allowing them to flourish on their own.

Helfrich and Dietl tested these complex processes in a sample of German employees and their leaders across a wide range of organizations. The sample of 268 leader-employee pairs completed questionnaires relevant to their respective roles, with employees rating themselves on the two narcissistic factors. Their leaders rated their employees on the dimensions of industry and citizenship (e.g., being a team player). The employees also rated how much their leaders allowed them to develop as individuals for their own good as well as their feelings of safety in expressing themselves around their leaders.

Using statistical modeling to unpack the correlations among these variables, the authors were able to develop a model in which narcissistic admiration positively predicted empowerment and voice in employees, and rivalry negatively predicted both outcomes. However, when leaders held positive views toward employee empowerment, the negative effect of rivalry became somewhat abated. A good employee, then, could be high in narcissism as long as that narcissism was self-focused and not intended to downgrade others. Even if an individual was high in narcissistic rivalry, though, this could be offset somewhat by a leader who was able to see past those negative behaviors.  

As the authors note, their study was not able to control for all possible influences, and it was conducted entirely in German organizations. Additionally, no data were provided on actual employee performance nor were demographic factors such as gender, age, or education taken into account. The study was done at one time only, and although the statistical modeling was done appropriately, the results might have been more informative if people were followed over time.

Nevertheless, the findings point to a novel way in which narcissism might not be all that bad in the workplace, and perhaps beyond, even to family gatherings or other social settings. People who seek attention by grabbing the limelight but don’t, in the process, try to outdo everyone else might have some redeeming qualities. You might even be surprised that, in the process of giving that long tribute to your aunt, this long speechmaker says nice things about you and the other relatives. The key to this working out, then, is that the attention-grabbing isn’t done by stepping on other people’s feet. Who knows? You might even ask this person next time to do the honors. Those same qualities that contribute to the narcissistic need for admiration might prove effective in making the event a success.

To sum up, knowing the difference between the two forms of narcissism might help your relationship with the admiration seeker be more fulfilling than you might realize.

References

Helfrich, H., & Dietl, E. (2019). Is employee narcissism always toxic? – the role of narcissistic admiration, rivalry and leaders’ implicit followership theories for employee voice. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. doi: 10.1080/1359432X.2019.1575365