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How Much Narcissism is Too Much?

When is narcissism good, and when is it bad?

We are all a little self-centered and egotistical—some of us more so than others. We typically think of narcissism as a bad thing, but there are clear advantages and disadvantages to being narcissistic.

First, let’s explore the positives associated with being narcissistic. In small doses, a little bit of narcissism can be advantageous. Narcissistic characteristics include being self-confident, feeling entitled and superior, and being goal-oriented. It’s no wonder then that individuals who have moderate levels of narcissism tend to be successful financially and in their career progression. Why? Because they are confident, self-promoting, and get noticed. Michael Maccoby uses the term “productive narcissists,” individuals whose narcissism drives them to success, and he suggests that famous business leaders—CEOs such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos—are examples, as are superstar celebrities like Kanye West, Madonna, and Oprah.

From the leadership perspective, it is clear that narcissists are more likely to attain leadership positions in business and government, and they may be successful—up to a point! Narcissists get noticed and they push their way to the top. Also, narcissists can be visionary and push forward ideas and innovations. They are also good at attracting followers. So, there are some advantages. But, what happens when a leader has extreme narcissism.

There is good evidence that the relationship between narcissism and leader effectiveness is a curvilinear, inverted-U relationship, meaning that narcissism in moderate doses is related to leader effectiveness, but low levels of narcissism, and more importantly, very high levels, lead to less leader effectiveness.

What does “too much” narcissism look like?

Too much narcissism can be characterized by grandiose narcissism. Grandiose narcissism is a flamboyant, assertive, and dominant style. There is an inflated sense of self, a lack of empathy, and overconfidence in one’s own abilities and decision making. Importantly, grandiose narcissists don’t learn from their mistakes.

One study examined the impact of grandiose narcissism on the performance of U.S. presidents. What they found was that presidents rated higher in grandiose narcissism scored higher on ratings of “presidential greatness” and they were more likely to win the popular vote and initiate important legislation. But, on the “dark side,” presidents with grandiose narcissism were more likely to engage in unethical behaviors and more likely to be impeached. So, for U.S. presidents, grandiose narcissism is a double-edged sword—leading to presidential greatness, but also toward tendencies to misbehave.

So, how much narcissism is too much? It is clear that when narcissism reaches extremely high levels, it is problematic. When narcissism becomes too extreme, it can be considered a personality disorder. Realize, however, than narcissistic personality disorder is quite rare—less than 1% of the population.

Most of us, however, have more or less narcissism, and we can work to decrease our narcissistic tendencies by developing empathy, actively working to listen to others, and not being so self-focused. Too little narcissism may be reflective of low levels of self-confidence. One way to begin is to assess your own narcissistic tendencies.

Here is a link to take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.

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Grijalva, E., Harms, P.D., Newman, D.A., Gaddis, B.H., & Fraley, R.C. (2015). Narcissism and Leadership: A Meta-Analytic Review of Linear and Nonlinear Relationships. Personnel Psychology, 68, 1-47.

Watts, A.L., Lilienfeld, S.O., et al. (2013). The double-edged sword of grandiose narcissism: Implications for successful and unsuccessful leadership among U.S. presidents. Psychological Science.