University study finds narcissistic traits may be helpful in leaders

By Claire Hettinger

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Although negatively connoted, narcissism’s traits may be helpful in getting leadership positions, according to a recent University study.

Emily Grijalva, visiting assistant professor in the department of psychology, led the study “Narcissism and Leadership: A Meta-Analytic Review of Linear and Nonlinear Relationships,” ultimately concluding “narcissism is a good thing in moderation.”

After test subjects took the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, results showed that a level of narcissism equivalent to the population’s average is where the most effective leaders are found.

The study found that narcissists can be very appealing in the initial stages of acquaintanceship, leading others to elect them to leadership roles. It also found that narcissists interview well because they have no problem telling people about their accomplishments and all the good things they’ve accomplished.

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If an individual has a level of narcissism that is too high, Grijalva said the person may seem like a jerk; however, when levels are too low, leaders do not have enough self-confidence to assure their followers that they are worth being followed.

As examples of extreme narcissism, Grijalva pointed out famous politicians or leaders of big companies “who chose to be narcissistic and put their own well-being above the well-being of their employees and their organization as a whole.”

Fritz Drasgow, interim dean and professor in both the School of Labor and Employment Relations as well as the department of psychology, was part of Grijalva’s dissertation committee.

“Extreme narcissism can create very big problems in organizations,” he said.

The grandiosity component of narcissism can lead people to do destructive things, he said, mentioning a story of a politician who accepted too many high-profile gifts and now no longer has a political career.

Extreme narcissists can initially be charming, but it is difficult to differentiate good and bad traits of narcissism from an initial interview. However, Drasgow does think organizations identify people with extreme levels of narcissism before they move too far up the ranks.

Drasgow said he does not think of moderate narcissists as having the traits that are so negatively connoted with narcissism, such as grandiosity, cold-heartedness and manipulating others.

But when someone is confident enough in themselves to take a stand for what they believe in, this communicates intermediate levels of narcissism that can indicate characteristics of good leaders, he said.

“Emily’s findings about narcissism (are) actually very important for thinking about how to promote internally — or externally hire leaders — in your organization,” Drasgow said.

He plans to incorporate the findings of Grijalva’s research into his class, Planning and Staffing, to teach future employers about hiring the most effective employees for executive leadership positions.

Matthew Campion, senior in LAS, is the two-term president of LAS Leaders, a student-led registered student organization that keeps alumni involved with the College of LAS after they graduate. The RSO has many opportunities for leadership, Campion said.

However, he was hesitant to say that anyone in the organization is a true narcissist, instead preferring the term “confident.”

“I don’t know if it would be narcissism as much as it would just be confidence in what you are able to do,” Campion said. “I think any leader might be accused of being narcissistic because they have to be in control and tell people what to do.”

Leaders want projects and organizations they are responsible for to succeed because it will reflect back on them, he said.

“It is a tricky line I think because it can be perceived a lot of times as being very cocky or very arrogant,” Campion said.

To be a member of LAS Leaders, prospective members have to go through an interview process and be selected for the club. He said being too humble would hurt a person in the interview process because they “want somebody who can brag about themselves a little bit and really show their value added to the organization.”

Grijalva said she thinks leaders who lack narcissism can work on gaining its better aspects, such as improved self-esteem and self-worth, while ridding themselves or avoiding development of negative behaviors, such as exploitative entitlement.

Campion said he thinks confidence can be taught to prospective leaders, attesting that he has seen members become more confident throughout their time in the RSO.

But Drasgow said he is not sure how trainable the positive and negative traits of narcissism are. His experiences in being a father have shown him that personality traits blossom on their own, and he does not know how changeable they are.

Grijalva said in the future she hopes to perform research to find out what type of employees work best with a narcissistic leader to ensure that these working relationships do not become abusive.

Claire can be reached at [email protected].