Attack of the narcissists

Posted by on Jun 16, 2011 in News & commentary | 0 comments

Levels of narcissism are increasing, especially among undergraduate business school students, according to this interesting study published last month in the Journal of Management Education.

And they aren’t talking about the mentally ill.  The authors describe “subclinical narcissists” in a way that sounds disturbingly familiar. They tend to:

  • “hold an inflated view of themselves”
  • “believe they are special and unique”
  • “expect special treatment from others while believing they owe little or nothing in return”
  • “lack empathy”
  • “have few, if any, close relationships”
  • “strongly desire social contact in order to receive admiration and attention”

And in order to maintain their inflated egos, they engage in:

  • “exhibitionism and attention seeking behavior”
  • “dominance and competitiveness in social situations”
  • “anger and self-enhancing attributions in response to criticism”
  • “derogation of those who provide threatening feedback”

Yeesh!  Sound like anybody you know?  I’ve definitely met this guy before.

The study found that current business undergraduates, presumably our next generation of enterprise technology consumers, have substantially more of these traits than previous ones.  They conclude that “a rising tide of narcissism would present significant problems for organizations, their productivity, and long-term viability.”

Given that narcissism has been associated with host of horrific behaviors, we’re in for a bumpy ride.  Check out these traits and hold onto your hats:

  • “white-collar crime”
  • “assault”
  • “aggression”
  • “distorted judgments of one’s abilities”
  • “rapidly depleting common resources”
  • “risky decision making”
  • “alcohol abuse”
  • management styles that create “toxic, unproductive work environments”

What can we do to protect ourselves and our work environments from the potential coming wave of toxic personalities?

First, what we’re not going to do.  In the office, we’re not going to change the underlying personality traits of the people we work with.  That’s just not likely to happen.

What we can do is be more explicit about the behaviors that are considered acceptable in the workplace.  We need to be more articulate about how people are expected to interact at work and more vigilant about enforcing those standards.  This is not about political correctness, but about civility and productivity.  One toxic person can destroy a project.  One toxic manager can destroy a department.  One toxic executive can destroy a company.

If there really is a coming wave of people who can’t conform to the social norms of the environment, we will have to improve our ability to protect the environment.  We need to learn to correct aberrant behavior and remove people who cannot support the culture before they do irreparable damage.

This brings up some important questions.  Do we have a similar problem among young IT professionals?  Are they part of the problem, displaying more narcissistic tendencies than previous generations?  Or are they (and we) the last noble defense against the rising tide of darkness?   (What do you think?)



Study cited and quoted: Westerman, Bergman, Bergman and Daly.  “Are Universities Creating Millennial Narcissistic Employees? An Empirical Examination of Narcissism in Business Students and Its Implications.” Journal of Management Education, May, 2011.


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