How Narcissists Climb the Career Ladder Quickly

September 2, 2021

People with a high degree of narcissism get promoted faster, new research shows. Why?

Much ink has been spilled on the dangers of the narcissistic CEO. They tend to instil an individualistic culture throughout the corporation, which reduces collaboration and integrity. They are known make rash and risky decisions that can weaken a company’s long-term resilience, and they are more likely to engage in aggressive tax avoidance and commit managerial fraud. Some management scientists have even speculated that narcissism can bring down entire companies, as may have been the case with the fall of Enron in 2001.

Despite these serious concerns about narcissistic leadership, surprisingly little is known about the way ways that these self-centred and over-confident people arrive at their positions of power in the first place. Does the ambition and hubris of narcissism actively help someone to be promoted, so that they are more likely to reach the top than the average person? Or are narcissistic leaders a toxic, but rather uncommon, phenomenon in the average workplace?

A new paper by Italian researchers attempts to close that gap in our knowledge – and it has some serious implications for the ways that companies select and reward their employees.

How ‘stars’ are born

There are many good reasons for suspecting that narcissists might get ahead more quickly than their colleagues. Without the humility that would prevent others from tooting their own horn, narcissists may be especially good at self-promotion and ensuring that their contributions are recognised – even if they do not deserve to be held in such high esteem. (A 2017 study found that narcissists’ high appraisal of their own performance does not match objective measures of their actual achievements – which are no more remarkable than those of the people around them.)

Thanks to their inflated view of themselves, narcissists may also present more ambitious plans for the future, which could impress their bosses or recruitment panels until they eventually reach the top job.

Without the humility that would prevent others from tooting their own horn, narcissists may be especially good at self-promotion

None of these points are inevitable, though. You could just as easily argue that a narcissist’s constant vying for attention would alienate the people around them. In a just world, their unfounded arrogance would become apparent, while more modest colleagues would be recognised for their genuine hard work. (In Aesop’s fable, after all, it is the slow-and-steady tortoise who manages to beat the boastful but lazy hare.)

Until now, it has been unclear which of these two scenarios is more common – a fact that inspired Paola Rovelli, assistant professor at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, and Camilla Curnis, a PhD student at the Milan Polytechnic University, to investigate the issue themselves, with a large survey of Italy’s top management. “When we started developing our interest towards CEO narcissism, we noticed that the literature had mainly focused on the consequences of this trait on the firm,” the pair told BBC Worklife in an email.

Their study is based on data from a former survey of around 200 Italian CEOs, who had previously answered in-depth questions about the management of their firms. 

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