Why we need to stop promoting psychopaths and narcissists

These damaging psychological traits are unusually prevalent among senior leaders, says author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Last Updated: 20 Jun 2019

Narcissism and psychopathy are fascinating because they can simultaneously help individual leaders advance their careers while hurting the people and organisations they lead. This is because these counterproductive and undesirable tendencies coexist with—and are largely masked by—seemingly attractive traits.

Psychopathy in particular is often discussed in connection with leadership, notably when it comes to famous political and business leaders. Various studies put the rate of psychopathy in senior management roles at anywhere between 4 percent and 20 per cent. Even at the lower end, that’s four times higher than the general population rate, which is just 1 per cent. Likewise, the prevalence of narcissism in the overall population is only 1 percent, yet studies suggest that among CEOs, the figure is 5 per cent.

But what happens once psychopaths or narcissists are in charge? How will they lead, and what effects will they have on their followers, subordinates, and organisations?

Narcissists

Let’s look at narcissism first. Primarily, narcissism involves an unrealistic sense of grandiosity and superiority, manifested in the form of vanity, self-admiration, and delusions of talent.

Yet underlying this apparent superiority complex is often an unstable self-concept: because narcissists’ self-esteem is high but fragile, they often crave validation and recognition from others. This craving is hardly surprising: if you are constantly showing off, you are probably desperate for others’ admiration. Such inner insecurity is rarely found in naturally humble people.

Narcissists tend to be self-centered. They are less interested in others and have deficits in empathy, the ability to feel what others are feeling. For this reason, narcissists are rarely found displaying any genuine consideration for people other than themselves. A third defining feature of narcissism concerns high levels of entitlement. When you think you are better than others, you perceive unfairness where there is none and behave in demeaning and condescending ways toward people.

The research evidence into narcissism’s effects on organizations is most compelling, suggesting that we are much better off minimising the number of narcissists in leadership roles. There are three big reasons for this recommendation:

  1. Narcissists are significantly more prone to counterproductive and antisocial work behaviors, such as bullying, fraud, white-collar crime, and harassment, including sexual harassment. And, given the contagious nature of these toxic behaviors, their teams and organisations are more likely to engage in these unethical and destructive activities as well.
  2. Although narcissists generally perform perfectly well just after their promotion to a leadership role, this usually short honeymoon period is followed by a much bleaker phase. For instance, narcissistic leaders, especially narcissist CEOs, are paid more than their counterparts, and they are also more likely to push their organisations into extravagant acquisitions and other investments without, unfortunately, producing a higher return on investment (ROI).
  3. Even when an organisation is aware of these problems, they are not easily fixed once a narcissist has been appointed to a leadership role. A person’s narcissism changes little over time, so we cannot just wait for narcissistic leaders to get better. Studies have found that adult levels of narcissism can be predicted from early childhood measures, even in children as young as four years. There’s also a hereditary component to narcissism much as there is for any other psychological or physical trait.

Psychopaths

Although psychopathic individuals may rise to become leaders because of their charisma, once they are in leadership roles, they are less likely to inspire or otherwise influence their subordinates. Instead, these leaders operate passively, failing to fulfill basic management tasks such as evaluating performance, giving accurate feedback, rewarding employees, and holding teams accountable for meeting goals.

In short, psychopathy offers few advantages to effective leadership; most psychopaths are incompetent as leaders.

Psychopathic individuals tend to have poor overall job performance, largely because of their lack of diligence, their disdain for deadlines and processes, and their failure to assume responsibilities. This range of problematic work behaviors explains why psychopathic leaders are rated more negatively by both their bosses and their direct reports.

Even when they are perceived as trustworthy, several red flags will predict inferior leadership performance. These red flags include the inability to build and motivate team members, an unwillingness to accept blame and responsibility, a lack of follow-through, and impulsive unpredictability.

There is also robust evidence linking psychopathy to less considerate and more laissez-fair leadership styles, both of which are generally ineffective. Teams led by psychopathic individuals are significantly less engaged and, in turn, more likely to burn out and underperform.

Psychopathic leaders create many of the same issues that narcissists create in their organisations. For example, a big problem with picking psychopathic individuals for leadership roles concerns their much more common antisocial and counterproductive work behaviors, such as theft, cyber-loafing, absenteeism, and bullying. A recent meta-analysis shows that psychopathic individuals are significantly more likely to engage in these and other activities that harm their peers, teams, and organisations.

It appears, then, that the superficial charm of psychopathic leaders, like that of narcissists, is short-lived, quickly morphing from charisma in the early stages to an off-putting and untrustworthy demeanor in the end.

Interestingly, the relationship between psychopathy and problematic work behaviors tends to weaken at higher levels of seniority. While this observation might suggest that psychopathic leaders are better able to inhibit their destructive tendencies when at the top, powerful people might simply be better able to get away with bad behavior—or not get caught.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and how to fix it). Copyright 2019 Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. All rights reserved.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University.


Image credit: AndreyPopov/getty images

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