Narcissists make bad managers. They have an overweening sense of self-importance, they believe they’re more special than other people, and they lack empathy. Basically, it’s all about them.
And here’s the scary thing: Organizations aren’t good at saving themselves from these people. In fact, they often promote them, because narcissists tend to make good first impressions, glide through interviews, and know who to please. They’re adept at hiding their faults and passing on blame. And they always have their sights set on the top. Because of their abundant self-love, they see themselves as CEO material, not rank-and-filers.
A recent paper sheds light on the narcissists at work phenomenon and offers a key insight. They’re more likely to be male than female. Freud may have said women were more narcissistic (because, he said, they were more concerned with their appearance). But the aggregated evidence says otherwise. A three-decade literature review finds that men are, on average, more narcissistic than women, though the reasons may be more socially constructed than innate.
The study looks at three aspects of what psychologists term “narcissistic personality disorder.” The biggest differences between men and women were in “exploitative/entitlement” type actions, which lead to aggression, counterproductive behavior (e.g. harassing coworkers) and cheating. People who exhibit this form of narcissism say or think things like “I insist upon getting the respect that is due to me” and “I find it easy to manipulate people.”
Lead author Emily Grijalva, an assistant professor at the University of Buffalo, speculates why men and women differ on this score. She says it could be connected with gender stereotypes where men are assertive and dominant and women are submissive and consensual. Women who try to act against their stereotype, even to the extent of being pathological, face “harsher sanctions” than men who do the same, she says.
“We suggest that the gender difference in narcissism is driven by gender role beliefs regarding what is considered appropriate behavior for men and women,” Grijalva says in an email.
The second group of behaviors revolve around people wanting to be leaders (“I like having authority over people”) and relates to the first. Again, men are more likely to exhibit these traits because they’re more likely to see themselves as dominant and others are more likely to see them that way. Where the sexes are equally narcissistic is in the third “exhibitionism” realm. Men and women are equally given to displays of vanity and self-absorption, according to the paper.
The interesting question is how the gender differences would play out if men and women held equal positions in the workplace and as many women and men were in leadership positions. Grijalva says it’s possible the narcissism gap would narrow. In other words, narcissism seems to be related more to position and a certain power drive as it is to gender. “Women and men are often more similar than different when it comes to many psychological attributes,” she writes.