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Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are known for creating quite some political chaos. Still there seems to be no end to their self-confidence and belief in their own abilities. Very typical behavior for leaders with narcissistic personality traits, says work and organizational psychologist Barbara Nevicka of the University of Amsterdam. She studies the emergence and effectiveness of ‘narcissistic’ leaders. Check your own ‘narcissism level’ at the end of this piece.

Attraction and bad group performance

Narcissism as a personality trait is generally conceived of as excessive self-love. Why are people drawn to leaders with narcissistic personality characteristics, like Trump and Johnson, who thrive on disruption and chaos?

Nevicka studies the emergence and effectiveness of narcissistic leadership through group experiments and analysis of organizations. She observes a contradictory attraction to narcissistic personality traits in leaders with bad group performance of those they lead at the same time.

How do ‘narcissistic’ leaders emerge?

When choosing leaders, people tend to choose the above average charismatic, visionary, self-confident, dominant, extraverted, and (on the surface) smart person in the group. The more uncertain people feel, the more they are inclined to favor narcissistic characteristics in leaders, despite their seeming negative side.

Narcissistic leaders in companies, who are not chosen by groups, can find their way to the top by overestimating their own performance, using self-promotion, taking credits for the successes of others, blaming others for their own failures, creating an image of competence for those on top and disregarding the people below them.

Positive first perceptions help get a foot in the door

At first impression personality traits that qualify a narcissistic profile might not be seen as negative and might even be regarded as positive traits needed to lead the way. These positive initial perceptions help narcissists get a foot in the door and climb to power, for instance during selection interviews. Indeed, Nevicka found that narcissistic managers had lower qualifications at time of hire. But over time, once they are in power, the negative side of narcissistic leaders becomes more visible.

How do ‘narcissistic’ leaders perform once in power?

Leaders with narcissistic characteristics typically lack empathy, tend to abuse other people, show no interest in other’s opinions, will not listen to others, show unethical behavior, can react aggressively and are incapable of handling criticism. They relish the opportunity to be at the center of attention and like dominating discussions, believing they can do the job best themselves, rather than soliciting views of others. These personality characteristics can negatively impact performance levels of those they lead.

During one of the group experiments, narcissistic leaders were indeed found to reduce information sharing among the group members, even though this was necessary to successfully complete the assigned group task. The more narcissist the leader was, the less effective the group turned out to be.

In organizations Nevicka observed that narcissistic leaders do not improve unit performance, nor do they reduce the number of absences by subordinates. Other research similarly shows that the performance levels of CEO’s with narcissistic traits were typically not above average, even though they believed so themselves, but tended to go up and down through time. In another study, Nevicka found that certain vulnerable subordinates, those with lower self-esteem, were particularly susceptible to abuse by narcissistic leaders, which negatively impacted their performance.

People’s reaction to ‘narcissistic’ leaders

Interestingly enough, while narcissistic leaders reduced group performance, the group members still believed they had a great leader. This shows a gap between reality and perception.

‘Detecting the dark side of narcissistic traits does take a while’

 ‘The closer people are to a leader the quicker they will learn and directly experience this dark side', explains Nevicka. People who are more distant to narcissistic leaders, for example those who have less contact hours, are more positive about these leaders. 

Parallels with current political leaders

It is easy to see parallels with both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson here. While at the start people might have fallen for their vision, self-confidence, charm, wittiness etc., once in power, more and more staff members close to them encountered the dark side of their narcissistic characteristics and as a result left office.  

Are narcissistic personality characteristics in leaders always bad?

An American study showed that US presidents had above average narcissistic personality characteristics. Might we need leaders with such traits now and then?

‘Maybe we need some of the personality traits of narcissistic leaders, for instance in times of crisis, or when we want to introduce necessary organizational change that people are resisting. Narcissists’ charisma, enthusiasm and confidence can help in such situations, to reduce uncertainty and resistance’, states Nevicka, ‘but we also need to contain the dark side and protect people against the negative characteristics such as aggression, lack of empathy, immorality and extreme risk taking'.

How can we contain this dark side?

Companies could for example implement 360 degrees feedback mechanisms in performance appraisals of leaders to avoid a biased view of their managers. Political structures could restrict what leaders can actually do and make them more accountable. Narcissists might even function better as nominal leadership figures, where their positive characteristics can better be utilized at a distance.

Test your own narcissistic level

We all have some narcissistic personality characteristics, a complete lack might even be worrisome and a sign of low confidence. You can check your own ‘narcissism level’ by a test on Open Psychometrics. The test consists of forty pairs of statements and for each pair you select the one that you feel best reflects your personality. It takes about five minutes to complete.

Check your own ‘narcissism level’

Want to read more about our research on narcissism?

  • Power and leadership: under certain circumstances, breaking the rules actually signals power and as a result can help norm violators to climb the hierarchical ladder. 
  • Creativity and Innovation: investigating the cognitive and neural processes that play a role in people’s ability to come up with original ideas. 
  • Narcissism and self-esteem: UvA researcher Eddie Brummelman and colleagues conclude that narcissism and self-esteem are much more distinct than conventional wisdom has led us to believe. 
dr. B. (Barbara) Nevicka

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group Work and Organizational Psychology