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The Fruits of Narcissism are Putrid for Employees

Posted Aug 13 2009 7:23pm

Office Space boss Narcissitic 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 atScientific Blogging.

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