Dominant, Over‑Confident Leaders Harm The Workplace. Why Are They Still So Valued?
We often envision an effective leader to be self-confident, charismatic, and strong-willed. We expect them not to be slowed by self-doubt or by criticism. But on a closer look, a lot of these traits often manifest as dominance, overconfidence, and authoritarianism. And a new study, published in Leadership Quarterly, confirms that leadership rewards “dark traits” such as authoritarianism and overconfidence. The study, conducted by Italian psychologists Paola Rovelli and Camilla Curnis, shows that those who show such traits — which typically fall under the umbrella of narcissism — climb the corporate ladder much faster than their peers.
“It is widely acknowledged that narcissism is a peculiar characteristic of leaders, such as CEOs,” write the researchers. In trying to determine the role of narcissistic traits in who assumes leadership positions, researchers identified five personality traits — extraversion, overconfidence, self-esteem, dominance, and authoritarianism — to survey 172 Italian CEOs and found that those who scored higher were more likely to get appointed CEO after a certain amount of time at their firm.
“Studying CEOs is relevant as observing them, understanding which of their characteristics trigger their thinking and decision making can help explain key organizational outcomes,” the researchers tell PsyPost. “Focusing on the personality of these individuals is also of key importance.” The findings suggested that youth and personality were stronger promoting forces than experience, and people who exhibited narcissistic tendencies had a significant positive effect on how quickly they advanced to the CEO position, even though they did more harm than good. “Our results are somewhat worrying … Narcissism is known to be a dark trait, and individuals who are characterized by higher levels of narcissism are known to procure negative outcomes for the firm, such as financial crime, tax avoidance, less collaborative cultures, and more.”
This conclusion is supported by multiple studies conducted in the past. “Narcissistic people believe they’re superior and thus not subject to the same rules and norms,” psychologist Charles A. O’Reilly told Stanford University Newsroom in 2020. O’Reilly, along with researcher Jennifer A. Chatman, conducted a study analyzing how “transformational leaders” also fit the American Psychiatric Association classification for narcissistic personality disorder: grandiose, entitled, self-confident, risk-seeking, manipulative, and hostile. “Studies show they’re more likely to act dishonestly to achieve their ends. They know they’re lying, and it doesn’t bother them. They don’t feel shame.” And people with these traits are also often reckless in the pursuit of glory — sometimes successfully, but often with dire consequences.
Researchers, behavioral scientists, corporate psychologists, and leaders all emphasize that these traits — being manipulative, for example — aren’t inherently bad, and even aid in effective leadership. But they can’t go unchecked.
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The gravest danger posed by such leaders is that their influence guides the behavior and expectations of others — and ultimately shapes the culture of the organization or polity in their image. So by legitimizing self-serving and arguably unethical behavior, they promote a culture that outlasts their tenure and takes ages to be corrected. In the extreme, they can destroy the institution itself. And in addition, researchers write, “experiences of power might, to a certain extent, stimulate narcissism.”
But why is that so? In an office environment, overly emotional individuals are often at a disadvantage because their judgment is clouded by a desire to protect those they care about. Inversely, “lacking empathy, more often than not, will help you in an environment where you have to make decisions that create negative consequences by the necessity for other people,” psychiatrist Dr. Igor Galynker tells CNBC. Being charming, manipulative, and cunning helps people be remarkably successful as it presents a dynamic personality — something that empathy does not. “And in the competitive workplace, empathy is discouraged because it may interfere with what you need to do for work,” added Galynker.
Besides, sometimes thrill-seeking and a lack of fear of failure can be mistaken for high energy and enthusiasm, action orientation, and the ability to multitask. “To the organization, these individuals’ irresponsibility may give the appearance of a risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit — highly prized in today’s fast-paced business environment,” writes corporate psychopath expert Paul Babiak and forensic behavioral consultant Mary Ellen O’Toole in a publication for the FBI. “This can prove effective, particularly in organizations experiencing turmoil and seeking a ‘knight in shining armor’ to fix the company.”