Traditionally regarded as a toxic trait, narcissism may have its uses in organisational settings, if research highlighted by BBC News [1] is anything to go by.

In a study of exam performance in Italian secondary schools, which included a sample of 300 youths that had been identified as narcissists (the article is unclear as to precisely how this was determined!), academics from six universities found that the mirror-mirror-on-the-wall brigade readily outperformed people with greater ability.

Queen’s University Belfast psychopathology lecturer Dr Kostas Papageorgiou – who is one of the research leads – suggests that narcissism can hold a range of enviable advantages and benefits for those in its grip.

For example, narcissists tend to be excellent at handling rejection, are generally highly motivated and have a knack for charming the socks off the people they meet. “They're quite charismatic,” Papageorgiou notes. “If you spend a lot of time trying to be charming and persuade other people, it might well make you more attractive.”

In addition, their self-belief is often expressed in the form of mental toughness and resilience, which means that they are equipped to embrace challenges that the rest of us may find a little daunting.

While Papageorgiou acknowledges that narcissists can be “absolutely destructive for those around them”, he stresses that this is not true of all cases, and somewhat reassuringly points out: “You can control them, rather than let them control you.”

So, if we transpose the researchers’ findings to the workplace, how can managers capture narcissists’ positive traits – and manage the less-appealing ones?

The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “If you look at narcissists, hubristic individuals and psychopaths – and a sufficient body of research does link all three of those types with senior-leadership or CEO behaviour – they’re all connected by a sense of self-belief, and of being right.

“Of course, they manifest their symptoms in different ways, and with different degrees of severity. But what we can discern from the narcissists in this study is that their self-belief remains intact when things go wrong. If they hear feedback that doesn’t fit with their self-image, then the feedback must be erroneous. There’s no way that any harsh verdict could be ascribed to them, so they reject it.

“In a way,” Cooper notes, “that chimes with the chutzpah exhibited by athletes. All the self-confidence that convinces them either that they’re the best, or have it within them to be the best, and their refusal to take it personally when things go wrong, are ideal qualities for helping people to actualise success. Put a couple of those individuals in an organisation, and you can see how they would be useful engines.”

However, she points out: “real problems can set in if a narcissist is suddenly cornered by a mistake in a way that is inescapable, and can’t be either explained away or laughed off. In those situations, a narcissist’s instinct to farm out the blame elsewhere – to people without such a one-sided sense of self – could be genuinely damaging. It may manifest itself as an outburst, verbal lashing out and demeaning behaviour.

“So while it wouldn’t be wise to exclude narcissists from the workplace altogether, leaders must monitor the conduct of these individuals very carefully, and keep an eye on the broader effects of their desire to take all of the credit and none of the blame.”

For further thoughts on self-awareness, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Source ref: [1]