Gather a group of strangers and ask them to choose a leader, and a startling high percentage of the time, they'll choose the most narcissistic member of the group. "There must be 20 or 30 studies that demonstrate this," according to Stanford Business School's Charles O'Reilly.
That's because the confidence and charisma narcissists initially exhibit are easily mistaken for transformational leadership. In fact, they sometimes overlap. Are Steve Jobs and Elon Musk narcissists or visionaries? Probably a bit of both.
But while great leaders and raging narcissists can appear similar at first, the results of hiring a true narcissist are grim. A stack of studies shows that over time narcissists' credit-hogging, lack of integrity, and delusional overconfidence lead to a toxic culture, lower performance, and more lawsuits.
All this means it's both easy to fall prey to a narcissist's charm offensive and that you want to avoid doing so at all costs. How can you manage to stop yourself from being seduced by egomaniacs? University of California, Berkeley, professor Jennifer Chatman, who studies narcissistic leaders, recently offered useful advice.
Don't take their word for it
Narcissists can be charismatic at first, but their lack of concern for others and relentless self-absorption mean they alienate their colleagues in the longer-term. One of the best ways to sniff out a narcissist then is to talk to those who have worked with him or her previously. And not just the handpicked few that a potential hire offers as references.
Similarly, a 360-degree review with the direct reports of a leader up for promotion can be revealing.
"Finding out what the candidate's true track record is in terms of developing people and giving them credit for accomplishments is essential. Narcissists will overclaim credit and are significantly less likely to help other people develop as leaders," Chatman recently told Quartz.
Secondly, narcissists are often compelling storytellers, selling big visions for the future without worrying much at all about how feasible they actually are. Don't be bamboozled by grand plans, enthusiastically sold. Ask for details and be persistent.
"Check the assumptions, check the projections, check the investment required," Chatman advises. "All aspects of the plan should be subject to very rigorous analysis."
Both of these recommendations boil down to being aware of just how appealing narcissism can initially be and tying yourself to the mast of reality to avoid being seduced. In other words, just because would-be leaders talk a good game, don't take their word for anything. Check to make sure they really are as successful and beloved as they make themselves out to be, and insist on pinning down specifics for any future plans.
This might sound like common sense, but the dozens of studies showing just how frequently we're charmed by narcissists suggest this advice bears repeating. Next time you're hiring for a leadership role, verify everything or you may find you've allowed a toxic narcissist into your midst.