Petris Lapis

What happens when you hire a narcissist

Have you ever promoted or hired someone who had a fabulous ‘sales pitch’ and then watched everything unravel in front of your eyes? You may have unwittingly come across an unproductive narcissist and paid the consequences.

How do you know you have a narcissist in your workplace?

According to Freud, there are three main personality types; erotics, obsessives and narcissists. Most of us have elements of all three. An erotic is a person for whom loving and being loved is the most important thing. An obsessive is an inner-directed, self-reliant and conscientious person and then there are the narcissists.

A narcissist is someone who is independent and driven to gain power and glory. They want to be admired, but not loved. Narcissists are emotionally isolated and highly distrustful, poor listeners and lacking in empathy. They are aggressive and paranoid about enemies. They have a grandiose view of themselves and a strong sense of entitlement.

According to Dr Ross King from Deakin University, one clue to spotting them is they don’t generally pitch in and help out with the little selfless tasks that keep an office functioning. Dr King lists the professions they are most likely to be attracted to as business, law, politics and media because they seek admiration, fame, wealth and success.

Narcissists can be productive or unproductive. Throughout history, narcissists have emerged in times of crisis or transition to shape the future.

The strengths of a narcissist as a leader/manager

Narcissists are eloquent creative strategists who have big picture vision, enjoy risk taking and change and have a powerful ability to attract and inspire others. In the words of Michael Maccoby, “Narcissists do not attempt to understand the future, they attempt to create it.”

Freud also described narcissists as being particularly suited to giving “a fresh stimulus to cultural development” (and also particularly well suited to damaging “the established state of affairs”).

The weaknesses of a narcissist as a leader/manager

While narcissists have some helpful attributes in times of change, having them in management longer term is when their weaknesses start to cause chaos.

Unproductive narcissists lack self-knowledge and restraint. Their grandiose schemes can lead to claims of self-involvement, unpredictability and paranoia, which is why an executive at Oracle described his CEO Larry Ellison this way, “The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.”

As narcissists become more self-assured, their faults become more pronounced. They become more spontaneous, tend to think they are invincible, refuse to listen to words of caution and advice and can engage in flagrant risk taking.

According to Freud, narcissists are emotionally isolated and highly distrustful, uncomfortable with their own emotions and lack empathy for others. They are very sensitive to criticism which is why they shun emotions and do not tolerate dissent or people disagreeing with them. Steve Jobs, for example, used to publicly humiliate subordinates. If a narcissist feels threatened, they will fly into fits of rage. They listen only for the kind of information they seek, don’t learn easily from others and dominate and indoctrinate, rather than teach.

Narcissists don’t rate well on evaluations of their inter-personal style, but they don’t want to change and often don’t believe they have to. They over-evaluate their performance think they are doing much better than they actually are. As a result, it is very hard for narcissists to work through their issues and they generally cannot do it alone.

How narcissists end up in leadership positions

How is it that narcissists end up in leadership positions? It appears we love superheroes and the more charismatic they are, the better. We promote narcissists because they know how to draw attention to themselves and it takes time for us to realise that the promise does not match the reality.

Research by Margarita Mayo shows that the mood we are in biases our perception of charismatic leaders. The more anxious we are, the more we seek charisma as a solution. As a result, in times of stress or crisis we seek charismatic leaders. She found that the paradox was that we choose to support the very leaders who are less likely to bring us success and will possibly plunge us into greater danger in the longer-term.

When we choose leaders and managers based on charisma, we tend to pay the price. According to Jay Conger and Rabindra Kanungo, “Charismatic leaders can be prone to extreme narcissism that leads them to promote highly self-serving and grandiose aims.”

These leaders tend to abuse their power and take advantage of their followers. In the words of Ray Williams, “We hire and promote the psychopaths, the narcissists, the bullies and the autocrats dedicated to self-interest and whose long-term impact has and can destroy organisations (and even countries).”

What happens when narcissists lead or manage others

Research has clearly shown that humble, unassuming leaders make the world and our workplaces a better place. They improve the performance of the company because they create more collaborative environments, have a balanced view of themselves and others, are open to new ideas and feedback and improve the bottom line. One researcher found that companies with leaders who had integrity, compassion, forgiveness sand accountability made five times larger returns on assets than companies whose leaders were more self-centred.

Narcissists are not humble, unassuming leaders, so what happens when they are in positions of authority? While narcissists may look like good leaders, according to researchers from the University of Amsterdam, they’re actually really bad at leading. The researchers found that narcissism inhibits information exchange between group members and negatively affects group performance.

Their sheer magnetism transforms their environments into a competitive game in which their followers also become more self-centered, giving rise to organisational narcissism. In a work environment, they tend to encourage internal competitiveness at a time when people need to be working together.

Charles A. O’Reilly III at Stanford’s business school found that bosses who are narcissistic tend to get paid more but don’t perform any better, company morale often declines and employees leave the company.

Tomas Chamorrow-Premuzic argues narcissists “have parasitic effects on society. When in charge of companies they commit fraud, demoralise employees and devalue stock. When in charge of countries they increase poverty, violence and death rates”.

Dr King from Deakin University confirms this when he says, “Narcissism has been linked with CEO fraud in the US”. Chamorrow-Premuzic’s research found that:

  • Because of their self-obsession and self-adulation, narcissists are masterful impression makers;
  • Narcissists take credit for successes and blame others for failures; and
  • Narcissists fit our stereotype of a good leader because we value overt confidence, charisma and egotism rather than humble confidence, altruism and integrity. Business values and rewards arrogant self-important people and our media thrives on reporting about narcissists.

What is the answer?

If we want to solve the problem narcissistic leaders and the toxic workplaces they create, it seems we might need to do the following things:

  1. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford University business professor argues it is time to change how we recruit as “the qualities we select for and reward in most workplaces are precisely the ones that are unlikely to produce leaders who are good for employees, or for that matter, long-term organisational performance”. We need to look for red flags when we hire people. Be wary of the person who claims to have been the sole reason for change or success in a previous workplace. Pay attention when you notice someone failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of others.
  2. Identify narcissists earlier in their careers and be very cautious of the positions of power we put them in. One leadership consultant I have worked with believes narcissists are so toxic, that he undertakes personality testing prior to leadership workshops to weed them out.
  3. Stop glorifying narcissistic people and leaders in the media as some form of superhero and start focusing on humility and quiet confidence as positive traits in our leaders and our society.

Petris Lapis, director, Petris Lapis Pty Ltd

3 thoughts on “What happens when you hire a narcissist

  • July 18, 2017 at 1:42 pm
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    A very informative and engaging article. The use of scholarly literature to validate theories is quite intriguing.

  • July 21, 2017 at 3:55 pm
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    Nice article Petris, thanks for publishing it. In my experience DISC profiling helps in the selection process too.

  • July 27, 2017 at 7:45 pm
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    Good article. Any advise colleagues that suffers as a result?
    These personalities are also favoured by bosses that don’t see through it, while it has a negative effect on colleagues or middle managers they may be reporting too. People that becomes a thread to their popularity are worked out of the organisation.

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