Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Narcissistic Leadership

Personality, of course, is a multi-dimension affair, and there are as many personality spectra as there are personality dimensions. But one possible spectrum I've been wondering about goes something like this:

Autism___________Asperger's__________Normal Range_________________________Narcissism

At both ends you see varieties of extreme self-absorption. In autistic spectrum disorders, the source, and the essence, are cognitive: core to autism is severe difficulty in calculating the perspectives of others. In narcissism, the source and essence are emotional: self-love interferes both with gut-level empathy and with the desire to consider others' perspectives. Source and essence aside, perspective taking deficits obviously impair pro-social behavior, including, for example, the ability to lead others.

But because narcissists are better at hiding their disorder, it tends to be only those on the autistic side of the spectrum who strike us as bad candidates for leadership positions. Indeed, because narcissists also exude confidence and charm, many of us consider them leadership whizzes. Wouldn't it be nice if a study cited in last week's weekend Wall Street Journal could make us think twice:

When narcissists get assigned to leadership roles, they impress their charges with authority and confidence. They also underperform, a new study finds.

Workers assigned to narcissistic leaders tended to report that they were authoritative and effective. But, in fact, narcissists-led groups shared information less effectively than the others and picked the wrong candidate more often.

The study offers a cautionary tale to businesses, the authors said: Narcissists are equipped to ace job interviews, for example, but are unlikely to live up to expectations.
At some level, this explains a lot of what's wrong in the world. But why does it not surprise me that many people who ace job interviews are "unlikely to live up to expectations"?


Amy P said...

I forget the source, but there was an interesting (an perhaps related) study that found that the 1-hour interview is actually extremely misleading. I suspect a lot of narcissists shine in the 1-hour format, while their less attractive side would be more likely to come out in a long interview (like the sort of weekend interview that academic departments do).

This stuff on narcissists is well illustrated by Michael Scott, the boss from The Office.

Katharine Beals said...

That makes sense. What baffles me is how narcissists dupe so many of their underlings. I picture narcissists as being particularly bad at playing hero to their valets. But maybe this, too, doesn't withstand the test of time.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Katherine-- I think it's partially the "Emperor has no Clothes" phenomenon. No one wants to be the ONE to point out the flaws and leave the herd, and management doesn't like to be wrong, so they double-down.

What would happen if an underling went over Narcissist's head and complained? Well, the manager would report the complaint to Narcissist. Narcissist would dock underling on next review. Underling would get a reputation for "not being a team player" and being "negative" and get bad performance reviews and be quickly laid off.

Underling needs to feed the family, have health insurance, etc. So underling pastes on a happy face at the office while stewing inside, then rants about it at a bar after work to friends who don't work at the same company.

Which is where the Aspie types get burned. Because they CAN'T play the "hide my emotions for 8 hours" game as well, and so they're not team players, they're 'mean' and 'negative' and they get the boot.

But, IMO, people with Aspergers make fine coworkers as long as you're willing to show up, do your job, and fix mistakes when they point them out to you---in otherwords, if you're willing to focus on goals and not jockeying for power and influence. Unfortunately, too many offices are all about influence and feelings as opposed to "getting our job done as efficiently as possible."

Katharine Beals said...

Deirdre, I think you're exactly right about all this. That's one reason why I so much like the concept of 360-degree evaluations. But in this particular study, where it was (I'm assuming) non-threatening to give an honest appraisal, I wonder why the underlings were so taken in. Perhaps we're seeing here the effects of another study I blogged about earlier: