Sweet becomes sour with narcissists at work

Paul Mayne//Western NewsWestern Psychology professor Alex Benson, whose research focuses on group dynamics, said narcissistic personalities make up a large part of leadership roles in many organizations.

Chocolate cake every day sounds like wonderful idea. But, over time, its sweetness is apt to become tiresome, cause a toothache and ultimately be more trouble than it’s worth.

This ‘chocolate cake’ metaphor is one way to depict the similar rise and fall of the narcissistic leader, according to Western psychology professor Alex Benson.

“They are infatuating in the short term and people are responding to them positively but, if continuous, there is a hidden cost,” said Benson, a Wilfrid Laurier University PhD graduate (Social Psychology) who begins his second year at Western this September.

Benson’s research focuses on group dynamics, including how groups and individuals shape each other’s experiences and processes. He is currently looking at different strategies and consequences of integrating new members into groups.

He is also interested in followership, a role essential to co-operative group work and often overlooked in studies of leadership dynamics.

But not everyone embraces the idea of being a follower – narcissists, least of all.

Instead, in their self-absorption and inflated views of their abilities, they covet and seek out high-status positions.

“They are unwilling to fill roles that are beneath them. Narcissists are interesting because they tend to strive and covet those leadership positions, but when they are given more followership-type roles, which are really essential in functioning co-operative groups efforts, they’re unwilling to fill those roles,” said Benson.

It’s not to say the label fits every go-getter with a lot of drive, self-confidence and a focus on career goals, he emphasized.

“There’s a difference between the confidence of having a general sense of self-worth, and the excessive hubris exhibited by a narcissist,” said Benson, noting extroversion, characterized by sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness and excitability, is one of the five core traits believed to make up human personality.

“Extroversion is something that can be correlated with narcissism, but extroverts aren’t necessary narcissists. There is a distinction. The more extroverted tend to rise in the ranks, and narcissists tend to possess that quality, but they also possess distinct qualities that make it more maladaptive in the long run.”

At the core of narcissism is a sense of self-entitlement, the need for control, an exaggerated need for validation, blaming and deflecting, lack of empathy and the inability to work within a group, said Benson.

He is scheduled to speak on this topic at the DisruptHR 2.0 London human resources development conference this month.

“We can’t extract narcissists from organizations; that’s not going to be realistic. It’s how are we going to maximize their input because they are very socially potent,” he said.

Companies see potential positives in these personalities because they tend to be visionary risk-takers who inspire people, at least in the short term. “They are very good at generating excitement. People tend to respond positively to narcissists’ initial social interactions, even though there are hidden costs over time.”

Benson added narcissists tend to be over-represented in leadership positions, suggesting there is an adaptive aspect to narcissism. And should they frequently receive promotions, with people affirming their greatness, that can fuel their narcissistic tendencies.

“A lot of organizations are structured in a way that rewards their social boldness and ability to put forth a vision. Those are things that are going to get you a spot in the company,” said Benson. “We do reward narcissistic behaviour a lot of the times. There are consequences, but they are also the ones more likely to take charge and energize. It doesn’t mean people are not able ascend the ranks without that (narcissism), though.”

So, if narcissism isn’t going anywhere in the workplace, how can folks deal with such individuals? It’s a question Benson hears often.

“There is not a clear way of how to optimally deal with that,” he admitted, noting their sense of entitlement is a hard trait to crack. “They tend to be less receptive to advice from others. They know it and are proud of it because they have the success and confidence. They are very happy to tell you that.”

About narcissists:

  • Named for Narcissus, a hunter in Greek mythology, who fell in love with his reflection in a pool and withered away from unrequited love for his own image.
  • Psychologists use the term to describe someone who has an over-inflated sense of self-importance, and whose arrogance, lack of empathy and excessive need for affirmation leave them unable to sustain personal or work relationships.