How Power Leads To Narcissism

That leaders tend to err towards narcissistic character traits is sadly relatively well known.  Indeed, a study from a few years ago found that leaders tend to score higher than normal on a wide range of psychotic traits.

So it’s perhaps not too surprising that a recent study from the University of Melbourne found that endowing people with social power increases their narcissism, and especially their tendency towards exploitation and entitlement.

Taking power

Until now, the traditional view has been that narcissists tend to grab power for themselves, but the new study casts doubt on that view, suggesting instead that it is the power that creates the narcissist.

“Narcissists can feel a sense of entitlement—they expect and demand respect from others as well as special privileges,” the researchers say. “They are willing to exploit others to get what they want.”

When narcissists are given a degree of power however, then things can turn rather ugly.

“While power doesn’t turn everyone into a destructive tyrant, it has pernicious effects when it gets into the hands of those who want it most,” the authors say. “Power increased narcissism only among those with high-baseline testosterone—people who want to achieve and retain positions of power.”

Interestingly, this trend seemed to unfold only in people with high levels of testosterone.  When people had low baseline testosterone levels, they didn’t tend to become narcissists when in power, but those who had high levels resorted to exploitative and entitled behavior when in power.  This would often then lead to a misuse of their power.

Striking the right balance

This chimes with previous work from the University of Illinois, which found that a bit of narcissism is required in a leader, but too much can turn bad very quickly.

It found that people with moderate levels of narcissism have achieved “a nice balance between having sufficient levels of self-confidence, but do not manifest the negative, antisocial aspects of narcissism that involve putting others down to feel good about themselves.”

“These results could really shift the focus of the discussion, because instead of asking whether or not narcissists make good leaders, we are asking how much narcissism it takes to be the ideal leader,” the researchers said. “We confirmed that narcissism is neither fully beneficial nor harmful, but it’s really best in moderation.”

It is perhaps best to consider the psychology of your team however. For instance, a study by Cornell University found that when two or more narcissistic individuals exist in a team, the veritable rutting of horns does little for either team harmony or performance.

I suspect such personality analyses are not ordinarily conducted when either recruiting a manager or indeed forming a team, but if high performance is the goal, perhaps it’s about time it is.