Do cheaters really prosper? Does the nice guy always finish last?

Recently, a few provocative studies have suggested that these old tropes are true. It seems that those very people we avoid in our personal lives—the shameless self-promoters, the manipulators, the endlessly self-absorbed—are actually rising to the top in the business world. These new studies examine anti-social personality traits (particularly narcissism) in relation to workplace outcomes, and suggest that the so-called "dark traits" can possibly mean a bright future in business.

How Much Bad Do You Need, to Be Good in Business?

Seeing that the calculating self-promoter can also be a high achiever, a host of business magazines have capitalized upon the correlation by suggesting that a bit of narcissism, or even a little light psychopathy, might increase workplace success. And from their slant, revealed in titles such as “What Leaders Can Learn From Narcissists, Manipulators and Psychopaths,” we might be wondering if some of our best qualities—namely ethics, empathy and humility—might not be stumbling blocks to success in business and leadership.

So should we all try to be a little nastier? And how much bad is the right amount?

If we are already likable, socially adept, caring, generous, and humble individuals, do we need to emulate the people we loathe just to get ahead? I know some narcissists in my industry and they’re intolerable sharks. But they’re also making double my salary. Troubling.

Here are a few common traits associated with narcissism:

  • Belief that rules don’t apply to them
  • Lack remorse for wrongdoing
  • Tendency to put others down to feel better about self
  • Domineering, overbearing, and tyrannical
  • Self-promoting; don’t share credit or recognition
  • Compulsive
  • Workaholic
  • Perfectionistic
  • Entertaining
  • Charismatic and inspirational

 You’re likely thinking of a few people who fit the “narcissist” description, and cringing at the thought of adopting these traits. But there’s good news: the case for narcissism may not be as strong as we think.

The Creative Narcissist

Creativity and narcissism are often associated, with the prevailing wisdom suggesting that narcissists are more creative than their non-narcissist counterparts. Think Picasso or Steve Jobs. However, while you are going to find people who are wildly talented and 100% self-absorbed at the same time, the common narcissist is not as creative as most people think.

Reflection in the Glass

Narcissists are, however, often persuasive, engaging and witty, and as a result, they accrue buy-in more on the force of their enthusiasm than the strength of their ideas. This was discovered in a study in which narcissists and non-narcissists were asked to present their ideas to a committee in written form and face-to-face. On a face-to-face basis, narcissists crushed it and were seen as the creative geniuses they believe themselves to be. In written form, however, their ideas were no more creative or compelling than their non-narcissist counterparts.

Narcissism, Leadership & Legacy

Narcissists are also overrepresented in leadership, especially at the C-level. Does this mean narcissists are more effective leaders or that aspiring executives should look to develop narcissistic tendencies in order to climb the ladder?

 In his study, “The Dark Side of Personality at Work,” Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Binghampton University, Seth Spain, describes the initial, but fleeting allure of the narcissist:

“Research has demonstrated that narcissists are particularly effective at creating positive first impressions in groups. The ability of narcissists to create these positive impressions may not only benefit individuals in selection settings, but also help these individuals self-promote their way into leadership positions. That said, it has also been noted that initial positive impressions quickly wear off after prolonged exposure to individuals with noxious personalities and that these individuals will eventually be seen by others as hostile and arrogant. Consequently, some researchers have argued that dark personality traits, particularly those in the Dark Triad, may represent short-term evolutionary strategies for success.”

Short-term, the narcissist will appear to prosper, advancing rapidly and effectively self-promoting his or her way to the desired outcome. But attaining leadership is not the same as maintaining it, and the overall result of narcissists at the top isn’t as glowing as the magazines suggest:

“Narcissistic CEOs influence organizational performance. These CEOs tend to favor big, bold actions—actions that grab attention. Such actions tend to have large consequences, which can be positive or negative: big wins or big losses. Consequently, organizations with narcissistic CEOs tend to perform in an extreme and fluctuating way; their year-to-year performance is less stable than organizations led by less narcissistic CEOs.”

Narcissists also tend to create toxic environments, alienate their best people and become detested and feared rather than admired. On a personal and short term basis, they may gain, but it would be hard to equate this with overall success. Being concerned only for themselves, and often at the expense of others, narcissists fail to cultivate the positive life infrastructure or company culture that is  key to sustainable success and legacy.

“Reviews of managerial derailment have suggested that dark personality traits serve as an important antecedent to leader failures,” says Spain.

The Race in Business

How Much Narcissism is Necessary for Success?

The business magazines seem to assume that correlation equals causation, which of course it doesn’t. In the end, these insights on narcissists should be descriptive rather than prescriptive.

To be fair, the articles don’t advocate for becoming full-blown narcissists, but they do say there are things we can learn from the narcissists and psychopaths, as long as we don’t take it too far.

For example, “Be confident and don’t worry if you fail” is a good principle for one’s professional life, but it isn’t exactly a milder version of the narcissistic tendency to think one can do no wrong while ignoring all shortcomings, failures and criticism. That’s not narcissism lite; you’ve moved off the spectrum of narcissism and into the realm of being an adjusted, assertive human being.

Here’s the conclusion: if you aren’t already manifesting the characteristics of a narcissist, you don’t need to adopt them to do better in business. There are far more adaptive and functional ways to achieve success other than say, endless self-promotion, overweening pride or manipulation. Let your narcissistic competitors manipulate their way to the top (they aren’t likely to stay there), and stay the course of perhaps slower, yet far more sustainable, success.

Source: Spain, Seth, Harms, P.D.,  LeBreton, James M. (2013). The Dark Side of Personality at Work. Journal of Organizational Behavior.

Jacki Christopher
Jacki Christopher is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia with interests in personality and relationships, small business development and communications. She is an ENFJ.