Decades of effort to improve our collective self-esteem (kicked off by Nathaniel Branden's The Psychology of Self-Esteem in 1969) have undoubtedly had positive effects, but there have also been some unintended consequences. It appears that one such result is the steady rise in narcissism among college students over the past 25 years, as noted by Associated Press writer David Crary:
Today's college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors, according to a comprehensive new study by five psychologists who worry that the trend could be harmful to personal relationships and American society.
"We need to stop endlessly repeating 'You're special' and having children repeat that back," said the study's lead author, Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. "Kids are self-centered enough already."
Twenge and her colleagues...examined the responses of 16,475 college students nationwide who completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory [NPI] between 1982 and 2006...
The researchers describe their study as the largest ever of its type and say students' NPI scores have risen steadily since the current test was introduced in 1982. By 2006, they said, two-thirds of the students had above-average scores, 30 percent more than in 1982.
David Bradford's class on High Performance Leadership at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, uses Michael Maccoby's Harvard Business Review article on Narcissistic Leaders as a central reading. Maccoby explores the pros and cons of narcissism in the organizational context:
[Productive narcissists] are gifted and creative strategists who see the big picture and find meaning in the risky proposition of changing the world and leaving behind a legacy. Indeed, one reason we look to productive narcissists in times of great transition is that they have the audacity to push through the massive transformations that society periodically undertakes. Productive narcissists are not only risk takers willing to get the job done but also charmers who can convert the masses with their rhetoric. The danger is that narcissism can turn unproductive when, lacking self-knowledge and restraining anchors, narcissists become unrealistic dreamers. They nurture grand schemes and harbor the illusion that only circumstances or enemies block their success. This tendency toward grandiosity and distrust is the Achilles’ heel of narcissism. Because of it, even brilliant narcissists can come under suspicion for self–involvement, unpredictability and—in extreme cases—paranoia.
(It may be useful to note that Maccoby is discussing "normal" rather than "pathological" narcissism. In this context, narcissists are simply one of the three primary personality types identified by Freud--the other two being obsessives, who are focused on order and conscientiousness, and erotics, who are focused on relationships and loving and being loved by others. As Maccoby notes, "Most of us have elements of all three [types.] We are all, for example, somewhat narcissistic. If that were not so, we would not be able to survive or assert our needs. The point is, one of the dynamic tendencies usually dominates the others, making each of us react differently to success and failure." My assumption is that Twenge's research uses the term in a similar sense.)
What conclusions might we begin to draw if we look at Maccoby's analysis in light of Twenge's research?
- Narcissists will become an increasingly prevalent personality type in organizations.
- This means more "risk takers willing to get the job done" and more "charmers who can convert the masses."
- But it also means more "unrealistic dreamers" with tendencies "toward grandiosity and distrust."
So how do we make the most of narcissists' productive capabilities while minimizing the baggage they bring with them? Maccoby's comment that narcissists turn unproductive when they lack "self-knowledge and restraining anchors" points to leadership development and management training programs that will allow narcissists to better understand themselves (and how their strengths can also be weaknesses) while making them more aware of their impact on others.
Executive coaching, T-groups, and other training services that provide people with specific, actionable feedback strike me as some of the most effective ways to insure that narcissists fulfill their productive potential while avoiding the pitfalls of their personality type.