The rise of the narcissist boss and why jerks thrive in the c-suite

Actor Steve Carell and actress Jenna Fischer discuss The Office. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Most have a story about once having a narcissist for a boss, a vain and egotistic person who constantly put people down, talked about themselves and liked to take credit for all the good work.

But are these tyrants good managers? Some management experts argue a little narcissism is essential for a confident, successful leader. But the research has produced mixed findings on whether narcissism produces a more effective leader.

In the latest study, researchers reviewed and aggregated past and current research.

They found that narcissists are more likely to get leadership positions but that there is no direct relationship between narcissism and success as a manager.

The research also found bosses with either extremely high or extremely low levels of narcissism are poorer leaders.

“With too little, a leader can be viewed as insecure or hesitant, but if you’re too high on narcissism, you can be exploitative or tyrannical,” says Emily Grijalva of the University of Illinois.

“Our findings are pretty clear that the answer to the question as to whether narcissism is good or bad is that it is neither. It’s best in moderation.”

Earlier research found that narcissists will step in to fill a vacuum if there’s no apparent leader about.

They like being top dog and rate themselves as leaders. It’s the power they crave. They are egotistical and initially charming and extroverted.

That’s why, according to earlier research, they’re often found in the c-suite, the senior executive team or in the CEO’s office. Narcissists often thrive in leadership roles, are comfortable with risk and charming enough to get backing for their ideas.

Peter Harms, an assistant professor of management at the University of Illinois, says those with moderate levels of narcissism have achieved a nice balance between having sufficient self-confidence but not the negative, antisocial aspects of narcissism.

Harms, who has conducted extensive research on the workplace, says the finding that narcissism is a double-edged sword is not new.

“(Narcissists) are usually very good in short-term situations when meeting people for the first time,” he says. “But the impression they create quickly falls apart. You soon realise that they are nowhere as good or as smart as they say they are.”

Beware: Narcissists are good performers at interview situations.

“But as time goes on, they become increasingly annoying,” Harms says. “At the personal level, they can be jerks. At the strategic level, they can take huge gambles because they’re so confident they’re right.

“They’re either making a fortune or they’re going broke.”

The researchers say more research is needed to determine if narcissists function better in some leadership situations than others.

The risk-taking and persuasiveness of narcissists may make them strong leaders in chaos but those traits can create problems in a more stable environment.

The study is published in the journal Personnel Psychology.

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