Turning Star Power into Company Power

Though the outcomes are dramatically different, powerful personalities Steve Jobs and Lance Armstrong both displayed narcissistic traits. Some now suggest organizations can accentuate the positive elements of employees with those traits, including contagious passion and drive, while taking steps to avoid the destructive fallout that comes with arrogance and ruthlessness.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013
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Narcissism in employees, when carefully identified, addressed and channeled, can be molded to benefit an organization, according to new research by Hogan Assessment Systems, based in Tulsa, Okla.

The white paper, published by the personality assessment and consulting firm as an e-book, analyzes the relationship between job performance and participants' scores on Hogan's bold scale, a measure used to indicate a tendency toward narcissistic behavior. The study, which included nearly 1,000 participants, concludes that intuitive managers can motivate high-bold types to become competent leaders and company assets.

Experts say the answer lies in nurturing a narcissist's self-awareness.

"If you provide your employees with a realistic understanding of their strengths, weaknesses and behavioral tendencies, they can harness the positive outcomes associated with narcissism and avoid taking it overboard," says Jeff Foster, Hogan's research department director. Foster, along with research consultant Dara Pickering, compiled and analyzed data for the e-book titled "The Upside of Narcissism in the Workplace."

Participants were scored on the bold scale of the Hogan Development Survey, which identifies personality-based performance risks. Those who ranked higher were more likely to be seen as knowledgeable about their industries and excelled at taking initiative, managing personal performance and driving for results. On the negative side, the data showed that high-bold employees were more aggressive and impulsive when tackling difficult tasks, often without regard for past performance or outside input.

These positive qualities often lure superiors into backing or even rewarding employees with narcissistic tendencies, especially because most possess a knack for marketing themselves, says Hogan consultant Jackie VanBroekhoven.

"It's often why they were promoted in the first place," VanBroekhoven says. "These are the types who do better at interviews. They come off as visionary, interesting, charming and high energy."

In another Hogan survey, 52 percent of respondents described "bad bosses" as being arrogant. The narcissist, alongside the psychopath and the Machiavellian, recently made a list of dysfunctional boss types commonly found in white-collar offices, laid out in a book by British psychologist and journalist Oliver James.  

Though the American Psychological Association reports that some experts feel strongly that narcissism is on the rise, the organization indicates that a definitive, multi-generational study has not been conducted.

VanBroekhoven says a narcissist's smashing first impression gradually fades away.

"Over time, it tends to wear off," she says. "Confidence becomes overconfidence and they start overpromising and under-delivering."

Burnout among team members can result, she says. In fact, chronic burnout can be an indicator that a narcissist is present and needs to be addressed, VanBroekhoven says. A crucial step in identifying this trait is through 360 assessments as well as informal feedback, she says.

To tame these negative aspects, the study concludes, managers must provide developmental feedback framed as an opportunity for personal advancement. 

Rick Lash, a Toronto-based director in The Hay Group's leadership and talent practice, says the research can be put into practice if managers remember what motivates individuals with these characteristics.

Referencing psychological theorist David McClelland's concept that the need for power is one of three major motivators, Lash says the hunger for power can materialize in an immature form (needing personal power) or a mature form (seeking socialized power), where an individual seeks to take action for the benefit of others. The immature form is a strong parallel for narcissism, he says.

"One difference you see between the two is a capability for inhibition," he says. "Even though you can take an action that's going to benefit yourself, if you are higher in socialized power, you can step back and make a decision that benefits the team."

Once 360-degree or multilayer feedback has been conducted to identify employees with narcissistic tendencies, Lash says managers must endeavor to help those individuals experience the joy of achieving for the greater good.

"You have to get them to develop values around activities related to socialized power," he says, citing coaching as one activity that could be assigned to narcissistic individuals, especially because they tend to avoid training others and prefer to be the sole source of knowledge and ability.

Another way to develop the high-bold employee would be to place her in a position where she may not be proficient or have enough experience, which could develop her adaptability and encourage her to collaborate.

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"A large part of this is changing how people see themselves," Lash says. "The narcissist identity is, 'I'm the expert.' You have to change that to, 'I help others.' "

Company culture can play a role in derailing dangerous narcissistic behavior, according to Michael O'Malley, vice president and senior consultant at the New York office of Sibson Consulting, part of The Segal Company. O'Malley, who holds a PhD in social psychology, says organizations should create an environment where communal versus individualistic achievements are most highly prized.

"That is, in order to be perceived as great, a leader has to satisfy the needs of the collective (as the most socially conscious, most creative, etc.) versus fulfilling individual needs (as the smartest, most powerful, etc.)," O'Malley says.

Dealing with a narcissist one-on-one requires an assertive yet "ego-confirming" approach, he says, with a warning that true narcissism, unbridled, poses a threat to a company and its other employees and should be avoided at the interview process, if detected.

"At the corporate level, let's first refresh our understanding of who these people are at the extreme: Exceptionally driven by needs for power, grandiose dreams and a strong need for admiration from others, these managers can be exceptionally malicious and cruel. Lacking empathy and regard for others, they pursue personal fame and fortune with no concern for the welfare of others - and frequently at the expense of the greater good of the corporation," O'Malley says.

"They are poor listeners and dismissive of others' ideas. They fail to give due credit to others for their accomplishments and, indeed, try to prevent others under their authority from gaining organizational visibility and notoriety, enviously keeping them away from choice assignments and silencing them, sometimes rudely, in important meetings. Others' rise is perceived as their own fall."

Organizational psychologist Ben Dattner, who has explored the concept of narcissism in the workplace in a presentation, says internal or external coaching may help narcissists achieve greater self-awareness or at least become more aware of others' perceptions in the work setting.

"Sadly, narcissists often 'kiss up and kick down,' meaning they are charming to superiors but brutal with subordinates," says Dattner, principal at Dattner Consulting in New York.

"HR can endeavor to make the narcissist's style and behavior more visible to those above," he says, "and then enlist the powers that be in the organization to send a clear message that, in our organization, 'Successfully managing down is managing up.' "

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