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Tapping the surprising science of “humble narcissism”

One researcher explains why a paradoxical combination of narcissism and humility can be a powerful formula for leaders to succeed.

Tapping the surprising science of “humble narcissism”
[Photo: Flickr user Graeme Maclean]

Most people think “narcissism” is a stable characteristic or personality type. In popular conceptions, narcissists are excessively self-centered, self-absorbed, entitled, and willing to exploit others to reach their goals. And that definition is partly right, but only partly. Narcissism really does represent an excessive focus on the self that can lead to toxic social behaviors and poor workplace outcomes. Though narcissists may initially seem charismatic, charming, and leader-like, over time the facade tends to crack, revealing a fragile and needy ego that craves admiration and validation by one and all.

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But as it turns out, even narcissists have their nuances, and one of them is the capacity for humility. Being humble may sound totally outside the wheelhouses of folks with strong narcissistic tendencies, but research by my colleagues and I suggests that it isn’t. Indeed, overlooking this counterintuitive side to narcissism risks missing key lessons on what it takes to be an effective leader.


Related: The ridiculously simple, scientific way to test for narcissism


Narcissism’s nuances

There are a few common ways narcissism tends to be misunderstood. First, certain aspects of narcissism–extreme drive, self-confidence, and a desire to lead–have the potential to bring about productive results. It’s likely because of these potentially constructive qualities that researchers have found narcissistic leaders aren’t uniformly bad; their track records tend to be something of a mixed bag, leading to positive outcomes as well as negative ones.

Second, narcissism may not be as stable a trait as we may think. Recent social science suggests that narcissism may be a fluid quality that can be tempered in order to minimize its toxic potential and yield benefits instead. Extensive interviews with business leaders and empirical studies in both the U.S. and China suggest that workplace narcissism is something many people can tame or manage–by deliberately practicing humility.

Over the past 12 years, my colleagues and I have examined the developmental and positive benefits of humility, and we’ve found that humility is teachable. People can learn over time to acknowledge others’ strengths and own up to their own limits and mistakes. Through our work on “humble narcissism” (recently popularized by Adam Grant), or the condition of having a deep level of narcissism while working to mitigate it with humility, we’ve learned that humility isn’t a definite characteristic that you either have or you don’t.

Being humble is something you seek to understand–you try it, you practice it, and you eventually develop it–like a reflex, habit, or a skill. In fact, that’s the way Aristotle viewed virtues; they’re skills we choose to acquire rather than characteristics we innately possess.

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A balancing act

Once they’ve sharpened the skill of humility, humble narcissists tend to have grand visions but are also open to learning from others and accepting their own limits. Humble narcissists have very high expectations for success but understand that great achievements are usually collective efforts, so they’re more willing to share the spotlight.

In our study, self-reported narcissists from a Fortune 100 company were assessed on how effective their employees thought they were, then we compared those ratings with employees’ own engagement and performance. By far, the narcissistic leaders who were reported to frequently display humility were seen as more effective, and their employees were more engaged. Those team members also took shorter breaks, surfed the internet less, and worked harder to add value in their customer interactions. Humility probably wasn’t these leaders’ first reflex, but they’d learned that admitting mistakes, being teachable, and shining the spotlight on others yields positive results.

Far from a contradiction in terms, “humble narcissism” can prove a powerful leadership formula. Traditionally, leaders are expected to have “agentic” qualities by being aggressive, confident, competitive, and determined. At the same time, they’re tasked with being emotionally intelligent relationship builders who foster trust by being cooperative, understanding, open-minded, and compassionate. In other words, we ask conflicting things of our leaders and offer few frameworks for reconciling those demands. Combining humility with narcissism helps counterbalance these qualities without trying (and likely failing) to wipe any of them out.

However, developing humility when you’re naturally narcissistic does come with a cost. Our data showed that leaders who’d mastered humble narcissism were much more likely to experience emotional burnout compared to those who showed humility yet possessed lower levels of innate narcissism. This means self-aware narcissists who commit to tempering their narcissism through humility need to be realistic about the extra effort it’ll take to retool their behavioral reflexes; they’ll also need to budget downtime for renewal.

Still, if you’re worried that you’re a narcissistic manager, there are a few habits you can practice to hone your humility. First, find someone to praise for their contributions or strengths each day. Second, admit limits and mistakes. Doing both these things on a regular basis may feel risky, but it will help you engender trust. Third, be teachable by seeking to learn from others, no matter their rank in the pecking order. And lastly, ask yourself, “What would a humble person do in this situation?” and then let the answer to that question shape your response. Before long, and with a little diligence, that person will be you.


Bradley Owens is an organizational psychologist who has researched the effects of positive psychology in organizations for over a decade. His research, which centers on humility, resilience, optimism, and positive energy, has been highlighted in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, the Washington Post, and others. You can follow Brad on LinkedIn or Facebook.

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