Narcissists get picked as leaders

July 5, 2014 - 06:29

People with narcissistic traits are often attracted to management positions – and they tend to get the job. This could be bad for business.

Leaders who score high on narcissistic traits lack the ability to relate to others. They run their own agenda with no thought for the people around them. (Photo: Microstock)

When organisations set out to recruit new leaders, they typically search for candidates who are dynamic, prepared to make tough decisions, have self-confidence and the capacity to be strong negotiators.

These are just a few of the qualities that characterise effective leaders.

We also find these same qualities in people who have significant narcissistic tendencies. We would prefer not to have them as leaders, precisely because they may possess too much of a quality that is considered good in many contexts.

Run their own agenda

"People with narcissistic personality disorders will be interested in dominance, status, recognition, power and admiration. They may not think twice about using others to achieve their goals," says PhD candidate Christian Enger Gimsø at BI Norwegian Business School. 

"Leaders who score high on narcissistic traits lack the ability to relate to others. They run their own agenda with no thought for the people around them," he says. 

This can mean poor leadership performance.

People with narcissistic personality disorders typically gravitate to management positions because they focus on power and status.

Many organisations assess a candidate's leadership potential using traditional recruiting methods such as job interviews and checking the candidate's Curriculum Vitae (CV).

How proficient are they at selecting the right candidates with effective leadership abilities, and how good are they at weeding out candidates with significant narcissistic traits?

3,200 candidates

In his doctoral project at BI Norwegian Business School, Christian Enger Gimsø conducted a study of how candidates with narcissistic traits are evaluated in the recruiting process.

He wanted to find out whether candidates with narcissistic traits earned a positive assessment for their leadership potential and, if so, whether they were also considered to be more suitable candidates than those with few narcissistic traits.

Gimsø conducted a study of 3,200 candidates in connection with three different admission processes at officers candidate schools in Norway. The Norwegian Armed Forces' officer candidate schools offer approved leadership training, which has developed many candidates into leading positions in Norwegian society.

Candidates who seek admission to an officers candidate school must undergo a structured, standardised job interview. The interview is geared both to objective criteria and an assessment of the candidate's leadership potential. Participants in the study have taken a personality test which measures factors such as narcissistic personality traits.

The study shows a positive link between the candidate's score on narcissistic traits in the personality test and how he or she is assessed in the job interview. Candidates with narcissistic traits did well in the admission interview. The study also reveals a correlation between personality test results and whether or not the candidate was admitted as an officer cadet.

Narcissists typically gravitate to management positions because they focus on power and status. (Photo: Microstock)

Candidates with narcissistic traits not only did better on the admission interview, they were also admitted as leadership talents (officer training cadets).

The crucial issue

Gimsø also conducted a follow-up study to reveal which part of the interview is most vulnerable as regards the candidate's narcissistic personality traits.

There was no correlation between the interview assessments and the degree of narcissism in those parts of the interview dealing with objective criteria related to the candidate and the candidate's CV.

Interviews aimed at evaluating the candidate's leadership potential are scenarios where candidates with significant narcissistic traits reinforce their chances of being among the chosen.

Christian Enger Gimsø emphasises that the proven statistical correlations are not very strong, but the findings are consistent both over time and across sample groups.

"The study indicates that candidates with a high degree of narcissistic traits do better in the admission interview than candidates with a lower degree of narcissism. They are also more likely to be admitted," the organisational researcher points out.

Four recommendations

Gimsø has developed four recommendations for separating good, effective leader talents from candidates with undesirable narcissistic traits.

1. The candidates must be treated as equally as possible in the job interview. The interview should be well-structured, both as regards how the questions are formulated and how the responses are evaluated.

2. Use multiple tools to assess the candidates.

3. Don't just look for the qualities you want. Also look for the qualities you definitely do not want to have (dark personality traits).

4. Check references, but don't just settle for the supervisor. Also consult with peers and subordinates. They may have quite a different perception than supervisors.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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