Seth M. Spain Ph.D.

The Dark Side of Work

Did I Predict Donald Trump in 2014?

The short answer is, “No.” But the long answer is disturbing.

Posted Apr 25, 2018

In 2014, my colleagues, Peter Harms, James LeBreton, and I published a paper innocuously titled, “The dark side of personality at work,” which reviewed the evidence about the role that so-called “dark” personality traits such as Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy play in the workplace. One of the most notable features of this review was that we took some care to examine both negative and positive outcomes. This was motivated by earlier work that Peter and I had done, with Sean Hannah, with US Army cadets that seemed to show that narcissism, in particular, might accelerate leader development in many performance domains. That is, individuals higher in narcissism tended to show more positive change in their various leadership-related performance evaluations over the course of the three years of the study than those lower in narcissism.

I found that puzzling when I discovered it, but Peter had an interesting explanation, by way of analogy. He said that it reminded him of Napoleon, in that Napoleon was not known for being a particularly bright or able student, but was an absolutely voracious reader of all things related to military history, tactics, and strategy. Napoleon was also an almost canonical narcissist of the first order. But this utter confidence in himself, in his belief that he was (or could be) the greatest military leader in history led him to work to be that great, to read and study what he needed to do – to be – just that.

And this is one path to success for a competent and motivated narcissist. That is, the person’s narcissism is a motivating factor in generating their ability to “be great.” But there is another path, and it’s why I should have seen Trump coming from the moment he descended his escalator at Trump Tower in 2015, even though I stubbornly persisted in believing that Hillary Clinton would win even late into night of November 8, 2016.

This other path is all bluster and appearance, at which, it seems clear now, Trump excels. Narcissists display supreme confidence in themselves, exuding a kind of exuberance that charms and beguiles their audiences. I tell students that if you’re pitching an idea to potential investors, a narcissist is the perfect pitch-person, because people leave their meeting saying things like, “Wow! That guy was great!” or “I’m so excited,” and so on.

Basically, narcissists are “wired” for social success-in-the-moment. Narcissism is an agentic and energetic characteristic. Narcissists talk big; they emote and put on a show (is it any wonder that Donald Trump's biggest success was in reality television. Really?). They want – they need – love and admiration, and their lives help train many narcissists in how to get those things.

It should come as no surprise to anyone, even perhaps his own voters, that Donald Trump is a world-class narcissist. Donald Trump absolutely adores Donald Trump, and he thinks that you should, too. And just about everything about a presidential election is wired for the kind of short-term experience that works well for narcissists. Even the course of three debates doesn’t, necessarily, get you much past style into substance – it certainly does not seem to have done enough in 2016.

I really should have seen this coming. But I didn’t. I convinced myself that, despite the margins of error in polling, Hillary Clinton’s lead was insurmountable. I never thought it possible to lose to a clear charlatan like Trump. But why? I’m not even convinced that we saw some kind of an extraordinary failure here, or at least not more extraordinary that the 2000 election (the first US Presidential election I was eligible to vote in; and didn’t! At that point viewing “both candidates as basically equally bad.” Hindsight is a harsh mistress – though, I was voting in Illinois at the time, so my vote wouldn’t have had even a marginal chance at changing anything.)

In any event, Donald Trump’s election helps to illustrate the power of narcissistic advancement – that people who feel free to promote themselves can seem like excellent candidates for the position to others, no matter the on-the-ground reality of the situation.

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