According to new research published in the Journal of Personality, narcissists earn more promotions at work by acting like they are already in charge. The researchers found that narcissistic employees felt a stronger sense of power on the job, and in turn, were rated as more suitable for promotion by their supervisors.
Personality researchers have speculated as to why narcissists are more likely than others to occupy leadership positions. Narcissists are characterized by a strong ego and a desire for status and power. Unsurprisingly, these individuals tend to seek out job posts at the top of the corporate ladder, since these positions allow them to exert influence over others. But what makes supervisors award them these promotions?
Although narcissists have excellent social skills and are adept at winning people over, this charm tends to wear off as people get to know them. Study authors Barbara Nevicka and Constantine Sedikides proposed that narcissists’ sense of power and self-promotion skills leads them to be hand-picked by supervisors despite their negative traits.
An initial study, conducted in the Netherlands among 93 supervisors and their employees, provided a basis for this theory. Employees with higher narcissism scores were considered more eligible for promotion by their supervisors, even after controlling for the gender and tenure of the employee.
A second study by Nevicka and Sedikides offered insight into why narcissists are favored for promotion. A second group of 85 supervisors rated their employees’ promotability, and this time, the employees completed measures of self-promotion (e.g., how often they make their accomplishments known to their supervisor), ingratiation (e.g., how often they feign interest in their supervisor’s personal problems), and sense of power (e.g., the extent they feel they are in charge of the decisions among their work team).
Again, employees with higher narcissism received higher promotability ratings from their supervisors. They also engaged in more self-promotion behaviors and felt a stronger sense of power at work. Moreover, mediation analysis revealed that employees’ sense of power helped account for the effect of narcissism on promotability. In other words, employees who were more narcissistic had a greater sense of power at work, and in turn, were rated as more suitable for promotion than their counterparts.
Finally, an experiment asked 181 British supervisors to imagine that they were selecting an employee for a promotion. They then read a description of an employee with trademark narcissistic characteristics, and read the candidate’s supposed answers to a work-related questionnaire. Importantly, the answers either depicted the candidate as a low or high power employee.
The results showed that supervisors preferred to promote the narcissistic employee who exuded high power compared to the narcissistic employee with low power. This finding further supports the perspective that narcissists are more likely to make their way into leadership positions because they display more power at work, and this behavior is noticed by hiring teams.
However, the research was not without limitations. In particular, the last study used a textbook description to convey a narcissistic employee to supervisors. In reality, narcissistic behaviors in the workplace are likely much more subtle and nuanced. The study’s authors suggest that this design might be improved by using a video to depict a narcissistic employee instead of text.
Overall, the findings suggest that being seen as a leader means behaving like one. “By acting as if they have more power in the group,” Nevicka and Sedikides write, “narcissistic employees can be seen as staking their claim to leadership, which appears to get noticed by their supervisors who may later grant them formal leadership through a promotion.”
The study, “Employee narcissism and promotability prospects”, was authored by Barbara Nevicka and Constantine Sedikides.