In my former life as a talent manager, I was tasked with conducting exit interviews to discover the reasons people were quitting their jobs at one particular creative agency. 

As I looked at the turnover trends in my report, "Reason No. 5" pointed back to the CEO. While he was a brilliant visionary with an impressive executive background, he was a lousy leader with the classic features of narcissism, as described by former employees. 

We see egomaniacs everywhere now--placed in positions of power and influence by company owners and boards who reward the wrong people for privileged roles.

In his phenomenal new book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It), Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains how the features we normally associate with desirable leadership traits--like confidence and charisma--can later become narcissism and even psychopathy and backfire.

How to spot narcissists 

In a recent episode of the Love in Action podcast, I asked Chamorro-Premuzic to share with me how anyone can recognize when he or she is working for a boss with narcissist tendencies.

In differing degrees, he told me, narcissists lack empathy, have a strong desire to break rules and defy the status quo, are likely to engage in manipulation to advance themselves at the cost of others, and are socially skillful with aggressive underpinning motives.

More specifically, here's how you'll know in a matter of minutes whether you're working with, or for, a narcissist:

1. They often crave validation.

Narcissists are known for having high self-esteem and a superiority complex, yet they suffer from a fragile ego derived from their own inner insecurity. Put it all together, and you'll be working with or for a person who often craves validation and recognition from others. This shouldn't come as a surprise. "If you are constantly showing off," says Chamorro-Premuzic, "you are probably desperate for others' admiration," which is rarely the case with humble people.

2. They are self-centered.

Narcissists are less interested in other people--their ideas, insights, feedback, or suggestions--because they have an empathy deficit. Don't expect any trace of genuine consideration for others, only for themselves. Furthermore, a high-level leader's narcissism can be detected by the "size and attractiveness of their corporate profile picture, the number of times they are mentioned in their organization's brochures and press releases, and the frequency with which they use the word 'I' and other self-referential pronouns," says Chamorro-Premuzic.

3. They expect special privileges. 

Narcissists feel entitled to certain privileges that their peers may not have, and for which they justify exploitative behavior to get. They may think or say: "Do I really need to apply for a promotion?" "Do I need to wait in line?" Chamorro-Premuzic explains that when you think you're better than those you work with, "you perceive unfairness where there is none and behave in demeaning and condescending ways toward people."

4. They blame others for their mistakes.

Since narcissists have a fierce resistance against negative feedback, they are quick to cast blame grenades at other people when issues should be pointing back at them. When their ears are open to critical feedback, expect an aggressive reaction, because narcissists retaliate rather than use the feedback to improve. "To make matters worse, these tendencies are exacerbated by narcissists' impulsive nature," says Chamorro-Premuzic. He adds that because of their poor self-control, "narcissists have trouble sustaining any development or self-improvement initiative."

In conclusion, while a narcissist is more likely to become a leader because of traits we identify as successful for the job (charisma and confidence), those very traits will evolve into their darker counterparts--overconfidence, narcissism, and psychopathy--which will get the person fired.

Published on: Jun 24, 2019
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