With the prevalence today of selfies, social media use and an obsession with celebrity culture, it is little wonder that research suggests narcissistic personality traits have risen faster than obesity rates since 1980. This upward trend has triggered a growing body of research into narcissism in the workplace and, particularly, within leadership where it has the greatest impact. Specifically, studies have used the ‘Bold’ scale of the Hogan Development Survey (HDS), which measures sub-clinical narcissism, to explore narcissists’ derailing characteristics. So what do we know about narcissistic leaders and how can we help rein in their tendencies to provide hope to these individuals and their employees?

Narcissists are often characterised as being emotionally isolated and highly distrustful. They’re usually poor listeners who lack empathy and can fly into a rage when faced with a perceived threat. Although the first key feature of narcissism encompasses arrogance, grandiosity, entitlement and obsessions with power, this is only half the puzzle. The second defining feature relates to the way they dominate and suppress others. This behaviour is triggered by narcissists’ lack of empathy and their belief that others are beneath them, as well as their willingness to exploit others to advance personal agendas.


Measuring Narcissism

Though these traits appear extreme, they are often not immediately apparent at interview or in everyday workplace interactions. The Bold scale of the HDS helps to identify narcissistic leaders by measuring characteristics such as ‘unusual’ self-confidence and difficulty admitting mistakes or listening to advice. It also assesses individuals’ beliefs that they have special gifts, deserve exceptional treatment or are ‘destined for greatness’. Such tendencies might only emerge when these individuals are stressed, over-worked or when they become so complacent they indulge themselves by releasing their extremes.

By measuring narcissistic characteristics we can then identify their impact on leadership performance. A recent meta-analysis by Grijalva, Harms, Newman, Gaddis and Fraley (2015) indicated that:

  • Narcissism is related to leader emergence (helping individuals to get to the top by calling attention to themselves and their achievements) but unrelated to leader effectiveness (e.g. building and maintaining a high-performing team)
  • Those who score highly on narcissism tend to rate themselves as being more effective than their superiors and colleagues rate them
  • ‘Moderate narcissism’ is actually better for leader effectiveness than being too narcissistic or not narcissistic enough!

Harnessing the Power of the Narcissist

Despite the many articles on obstacles and derailers associated with narcissism, high scores on the HDS Bold scale are also associated with a variety of strengths. For example, individuals who score highly on Bold also rate highly on:

  • Employee development
  • Industry knowledge
  • Initiative
  • Managing performance
  • Motivating others
  • Communication skills
  • Sales ability
  • Work skill

A belief in one’s own superiority and resistance to critical developmental feedback may be problematic, but if personal development is framed as a strategy to enhance one’s own personal agenda, even narcissists may be persuaded to make changes. For example, through a professional coaching or mentoring arrangement, these individuals can be helped to reduce their expectations for special treatment and accept their role in, and responsibility for, mistakes. Though they may not listen to their sub-ordinates, in addition to a trusted coach or mentor, they could be encouraged to seek feedback from those they are least likely to ignore or resist e.g. friends, family or close colleagues.

By viewing team interactions as opportunities for collaboration, not competition, and recognising that direct reports will be more productive if they feel respected, HDS Bold individuals can use their tendencies to their advantage. Their confidence, energy and determination can be leveraged to motivate rather than intimidate others. In controlled doses, narcissism can therefore be harnessed to advance not only an individual’s career goals but also the success of an organisation.

For more information about the Hogan Development Survey (HDS) or to speak to one of our chartered psychologists, please contact info@psychological-consultancy.com