The Fruits of Narcissism are Putrid for Employees

Office Space bossNarcissitic Personality Disorder – defined in the DSM-IV as a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.

Everyone at some point has come in contact with a narcissist, and it usually doesn’t take long to realize that you’d rather be just about anywhere else than in the shadow of his or her monstrous ego.  For the unfortunates who work for narcissists, however, the exit options aren’t so good – and new research reveals the psychological toll this can take.

Researchers at Florida State University asked more than 1,200 employees to provide opinions regarding the narcissistic tendencies of their bosses.  They reported significantly lower levels of job satisfaction, higher stress levels, lower levels of effort and performance, and higher levels of depressed feelings about work. Plus, they reported generally negative feelings about the organizations they work for and the work they do.

And it gets worse.

Not only are people who work for narcissists generally miserable, but they also report having to stand by while their bosses exaggerate their accomplishments even if it means disparaging their employees, brag at every opportunity, and only do a favor if they’re promised one in return. 

The net result of all this for the organization is that morale nosedives, followed by productivity. Narcissists might be successful in a lot of things, but it seems that they’re especially good at creating toxic work environments.

Which begs the question, why do companies keep hiring them?  The answer has much to do with perceptions of self-confidence, and a failure to distinguish a healthy level of self-confidence from unhealthy egoism.  The rub is that because narcissists come across as outgoing, self-secure go getters, they naturally grab more attention from employers over less gregarious candidates.  The misperception that managers must be extroverts with robust personalities opens the door for narcissists, who have those traits in spades, to take over teams of employees soon to be made miserable.

The thing about narcissists, though, is that while they seem to be all about success, they really aren’t that concerned with alluding failure.  A study last year indicates that narcissists have a peculiar “approach-avoidance” personality tendency. That is, they are strongly motivated to approach success, but weakly motivated to avoid failure.  This helps explain someone like Bernie Madoff, who was playing a game he was bound to ultimately lose—and take many people with him—and yet kept right on going as if the success would never end.

And to make matters more complicated, there’s decent evidence to suggest that there are at least two faces of narcissism – someone can be an overt narcissist, the kind we usually talk about, but there are also those who are covert narcissists. This study examined the traits of both and found that covert narcissists aren’t necessarily so outgoing and forceful, and can easily slip by the narcissism radar most of us possess. 

In any case, if you work for a narcissist, you have our sincere sympathies. 

Here’s a very interesting counter argument on this study at Scientific Blogging.


Filed under About Research

2 responses to “The Fruits of Narcissism are Putrid for Employees

  1. Chelsea

    I’m glad you included the link to a “counter argument” on this research, as the study’s claims seem radically over-reaching. The first study you cite seems to me to be little more than a large survey that reveals how employees’ opinions about their bosses correlate with the degree of dissatisfaction they feel toward their job. In no way is it a realistic measure of narcissm… Don’t you think employees who are dissatisfied with their jobs are going to be more likely to ascribe “narcisstic tendencies” to their bosses behavior than those who are satisfied?

    So, are companies hiring lots of narcisstic bosses, or are people who hate their job more likely to deem their boss overly self-centered? I don’t think there is enough evidence here to infer that a large number of bosses are narcissists, nor can the researcher claim that narcissm leads to toxic work environments.

  2. Chelsea,
    You make very valid points, as does the writer at Scientific Blogging. I should clarify one thing, however: not all of the respondents ascribed narcissistic traits to their bosses. Here’s the breakout from the study:
     31 percent reported that their boss is prone to exaggerate his or her accomplishments to look good in front of others;
     27 percent reported that their boss brags to others to get praise;
     25 percent reported that their boss had an inflated view of himself or herself;
     24 percent reported that their boss was self-centered; and
     20 percent reported that their boss will do a favor only if guaranteed one in return.

    So of the 1200, only 20-30% responded with answers that could reasonably be considered as describing a narcissist.

    What I would like to see is some balance in the survey, such that we could tease out employees who are responding just because they are disgruntled, versus those who have valid concerns about their supervisors. As it stands (as you point out) we really have no way of knowing how much of the 20-30% is legitimate versus axe grinding.

    That said, I think it’s a mistake to write off the findings as merely the venom of dissatisfied employees. I’m sure some of that is in there, yes, but that doesn’t negate the genuine responses — though it does muddy the results.

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