Why are Narcissists Promoted in their Jobs?
We can easily think of people with narcissistic characteristics, typified by overinflated and entitled self-views, who have found themselves in top leadership jobs. Although narcissistic individuals can be charismatic and formulate bold visions that may energize others in the short run, they are also self-focused, liable to disregarding ethical norms, low on empathy, hostile to criticism, and prone to ignoring expert advice. Given the potentially obstructive impact of narcissistic leaders, it is especially relevant to understand how they reach high-level positions.
Narcissistic individuals seek powerful positions and are attracted to hierarchies in their quest for status and influence. With their sociability, soaring confidence, and dominance, narcissistic individuals match the collective notion of an ideal leader, and so their presence in top jobs may not be surprising. Indeed, we know from previous research, including our own, that they are more likely to be chosen as leaders, especially in times of uncertainty. Additionally, narcissistic individuals’ bragging about their superior skills and persuasion savvy seem to help them in job interviews. However, these are not the only routes to high-level positions. Often employee promotions within organizations rely on the support and recommendations of supervisors. So, are narcissistic employees actually perceived as more promotable by their supervisors, and if so why?
We set out to find an answer. We proposed two alternative reasons why narcissistic employees might be seen as promotable material by their supervisors. First, because narcissistic individuals think they have exceptional leadership qualities and because they are motivated to exert influence over others, they may already act toward their other team members as if they have higher power and control, despite that their current position does not structurally give them any more power and authority than other team members. For example, narcissistic employees might dominate discussions during team meetings, instruct other co-workers about what to do, and make decisions for the team. Given that higher-level positions often require a certain amount of political skill and ability to influence others, supervisors of a narcissistic employee may see such behaviors as a positive signal of the employee’s potential to function successfully in a higher position.
Second, because narcissistic individuals are motivated to impress high status others and are especially concerned with showing off their superior skills in competitive performance contexts, they may engage in impression management tactics toward their supervisors by attempting to show themselves as competent. For example, a narcissistic employee may make a positive outcome for which they were responsible, such as a successful conclusion of a project, appear to be a bigger deal than it is and brag to the supervisor about their accomplishments. Such tactics can increase an employees’ performance evaluations, if that employee has adequate social skill to use them subtly. Narcissistic individuals are known to adjust their behavior strategically to suit the situation, and so they may be expected to use such self-promotion tactics effectively to convince the supervisor of their promotability.
In two studies, we sent separate questionnaires to both supervisors and their employees. We measured the employee’s narcissism, their sense of their own power in the team, and their self-promotion attempts toward their supervisor. We asked their supervisors to indicate whether they would recommend the employee for a promotion. We found that employees who scored higher on narcissism were perceived as more promotable by their supervisors. Narcissistic employees indicated that they saw themselves as having more power and influence in their team and that they also engaged in self-promotion attempts when interacting with their supervisor. However, acting as if one has power in the team, rather than attempts to appear competent, is what helped explain why narcissistic employees received higher promotability ratings.
Our findings, therefore, show that narcissistic individuals are fairly skillful at creating an image of someone who would be expected to function well in a higher-level position. By acting as if they already have more power and influence in the team, for example by directing their team members or being more outspoken in meetings, they prompt (if not dupe) their supervisors into thinking that this behavior is desired for someone in a higher role. As supervisor recommendations are important for deciding whether an employee gets promoted, narcissistic employees’ readiness to behave as if they already got the higher-level job seems to be what gives them a leg-up in their quest to the top.
A question arises: Do narcissistic employees perform better? They certainly think they do, and they receive higher salaries, but a review of more than 200 studies indicates that narcissistic employees do not score any higher on job performance. Actually, they perform worse when they work in a culture that emphasizes loyalty and cohesiveness among employees and when they have more authority. Narcissistic employees are also known to engage in more counterproductive work behavior such as time wasting, sabotage, theft, and interpersonal aggression. Apparent flair and a leader façade seem to pay off in modern organizational culture.
For Further Reading
Nevicka, B., & Sedikides, C. (2021). Employee narcissism and promotability prospects. Journal of Personality. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12619
Nevicka, B., De Hoogh, A. H., Van Vianen, A. E., & Ten Velden, F. S. (2013). Uncertainty enhances the preference for narcissistic leaders. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43(5), 370-380. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.1943
Sedikides, C., & Campbell, W. K. (2017). Narcissistic force meets systemic resistance: The Energy Clash Model. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(3), 400-421. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617692105
Barbara Nevicka is assistant professor of Work and Organizational Psychology at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Her research examines the interpersonal and intrapersonal effects of narcissism, with a specific focus on leadership.
Constantine Sedikides is professor of Social and Personality Psychology at the University of Southampton, United Kingdom. His research is on self and identity, including narcissism.