January 10, 2018 Practice Points

Do Narcissists Rule the Day?

By Angela A. Turiano

It goes without saying that a certain level of self-confidence is essential to becoming a successful leader. But at what point does self-confidence take a turn for the worse and become arrogance, or an even further extreme, narcissism. This can be a difficult question and one that I have pondered in the past. So much so, that it prompted me to write an article entitled, “Be Confident Not Arrogant: How to Not Cross that Thin Dividing Line.” Essentially, as the title suggests, the article discussed the virtues of confidence along with the pitfalls of arrogance and included suggestions on how to navigate the “thin line” that separates the two. While the article’s focus was professional development as a lawyer, its overall theme had broader implications. Here is an excerpt:

In its simplest form, confidence is the belief in yourself and your abilities overall, while arrogance is an exaggerated form of this concept—both in terms of an individual’s importance and abilities. More specifically, it can be said that:

  • Arrogant people act superior and are often condescending in nature, while confident people are well liked and make others feel comfortable.
  • Arrogant people are often insecure and need constant validation, while confident people are cognizant of their areas of strength and are willing to admit their deficiencies.
  • Arrogant people feed on making others feel less important or intelligent, while confident people look internally to succeed both at the task at hand and in their career generally.

However defined, being viewed as self-confident is generally desirable, while being considered arrogant or narcissistic has a negative connotation. This is why a recent article in the Glasshammer.com entitled, “Can Being Slightly Narcissist Help You Become A Leader” caught my interest. Here, the authors seem to suggest that a certain level a narcissism is actually a positive characteristic. Or, as I read it, that stepping slightly over “the thin line” between confidence and arrogance can lead to career advancement and leadership roles. This is true, the article opines, whether you are male or female. That being said, and as is likely no surprise, men are generally more narcissistic than women—a conclusion that was confirmed in a study from the University of Buffalo School of Management (Buffalo Edu 2015 News Release). But this study was about more than the “battle of the sexes.” Rather, the study set out to determine whether these male narcissistic tendencies were the reason for gender disparity when it comes to women in leadership positions in corporate America. It is this study that formed the basis for the Glasshammer’s article and the authors’ conclusion that some level of narcissism can help you emerge as a leader.

The Study and Its Conclusions
In addition to significant research, reviewing over 350 journal articles, dissertations, manuscripts and technical manuals, the researchers analyzed gender differences in three facets of narcissism across nearly half a million people and age groups. The three facets were as follows:

1. Entitlement/Exploitation (E/E)

Illustrative questions: “I insist upon getting the respect that is due to me” and “I find it easy to manipulate people.”

2. Leadership/authority (L/A)

Illustrative questions: “I would prefer to be a leader” and, “I like having authority over people.”

3. Grandiosity/Exhibitionism (G/E)

Illustrative questions: “I really like to be the center of attention” and “I know that I am good because everybody keeps telling me so.”

The authors point out that of these facets, the first one, entitlement and exploitation, is the most dysfunctional, often associated with aggression and manipulation, whereas the second one, leadership and authority, is more benign and adaptive, reflecting a desire to be in charge. In the Study, the researchers analyzed responses to statements designed to detect the levels of each facet that existed in the subject individuals.

The study’s conclusions were that men were far more likely to exhibit traits associated with the first two facets, with the widest gender gap in the facet of entitlement and exploitation. The study found that, on average, men were more likely to have a sense of entitlement and take advantage of others for their own self-promotion than women. This statistic is of particular note because, as highlighted in the article, research has shown that gender diversity on corporate boards has resulted in higher ethical and social compliance. While there was still a gap between men and women with regard to leadership and authority, when it came to the third facet, grandiosity and exhibitionism, there was no gender gap. (I guess most all of us, whether male or female, crave validation and to be liked—at least at some level).

The study postulates that the reason why men were found generally to be more narcissistic than women could be a result of “both biological and social differences, ingrained and self-fulfilling gender stereotypes learned from a young age.” In other words, narcissism could be encouraged and developed in males, or punished and suppressed in females. One of the co-authors of the study, Emily Grijalva, PhD, is quoted as stating that “[i]ndividuals tend to observe and learn gender roles from a young age, and may face backlash for deviating from society’s expectations,” and further that, “…women often receive harsh criticism for being aggressive or authoritative, which creates pressure for women, more so than for men, to suppress displays of narcissistic behavior.” In the same vein, the researchers conclude that it is more socially acceptable for men to be dominant and assertive, which reinforces more narcissistic personality tendencies, resulting in more males emerging as leaders. This pattern self-perpetuates. At the end of the day, men continue to rise to the top and women continue to conform to their more traditional “sub-servient” gender roles to avoid social stigma. As aptly stated by the authors of the article, “[s]ociety keeps looking at its face in the mirror, and seeing the same reflection.”

As a result of these societal patterns, and while conceding that narcissism is far from a positive trait, as associated with dysfunctional behavior such as the inability to maintain healthy, long-tern relationships, unethical and/or aggressive behavior, the article opines that a little bit of narcissism can in fact help your career. Specifically, the authors refer to a “healthy or adaptive narcissism,” related to positive traits such as confidence, self-sufficiency, high self-esteem, emotional stability, and, of course, the natural progression to a leadership position. To me, this sounds like properly navigating that “thin dividing line” and being a confident, strong person, NOT a narcissist.

In my humble (or maybe not so humble opinion), you do not need to be narcissist—even a “slight one”—to emerge as a leader. Indeed, no one wants to be around an arrogant person (male or female) who exploits others and/or needs constant validation, much less work for one. Perhaps that is why so many CEOs have risen to the top only to be terminated and replaced. And to the extent these individuals continue to maintain positions of power, this has to change. While it is important to be confident in your abilities and strong in your convictions, it is equally important to know your limitations and, while ultimately decisive, know when to seek input from others so you can ultimately use your power to make the best decision. These are the traits of a true leader and one that future mirrors will hopefully reflect.

Angela A. Turiano is a principal at Bressler, Amery & Ross, PC, in New York, New York.

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