Self-esteem is probably a good thing. We want confident, intelligent high flyers who are assured in their own abilities and never have self doubts. Right? The problem for the high flyer is this: you probably need a great deal of self-esteem to get the job, but you need to lose some of it while on the job.
Self-esteem, in itself, is not a bad thing. The problems typically accompany the extremes. Too little self-esteem can be both a cause and a consequence of management failure. Too much self-esteem can appear attractive, but when self-esteem exceeds ability is where the problems begin.
The self-esteem industry believes that low self-esteem is the root of most problems: failure at school, delinquency, unemployment, crime, depression, etc are all a consequence of not believing in yourself enough. The more you believe in yourself, the greater your self-esteem, the greater your potential.... we are told. And yet, modesty can be much more attractive than arrogance.
And people with low self-esteem seldom get into positions of power. We all need enough self-respect for healthy day-to-day functioning. We need to be sufficiently interested in, and confident about, ourselves to function well in the cut and thrust of business life.
The real problems emerge from hubristic self-confidence that greatly exceeds a person’s real intelligence, ability or charm. The narcissists are completely preoccupied with being superior, unique or special. They shamelessly exaggerate their talents and indulge in boasting and attention-seeking behaviour. They are often mildly amusing or entertaining, until you get on their bad side.
The ascent of the high flying narcissist nearly always follows a similar arc. Their strengths (real or imagined) are noticed and they are promoted quickly. Whichever part of the organisation they work in they tend to excel. They bring energy and excitement to whichever department they are promoted to. Their imagine is polished and accompanied with well-practiced flattery. They are quick to take credit for any success and shovel off mistakes or problems onto hapless colleagues. They resort to bullying, and are usually excellent at finding the scapegoat least likely or able to put up a defence.
But as long as they can stay charming and energetic and maintain a decent level of performance, their mistakes are overlooked. Once they gain power, they will shamelessly flaunt their power and create the image of a deserving candidate. Problems are deflected either up or down, whichever is politically convenient. They seek out people who are like-minded or loyal or can be bullied to consolidate their power base.
Narcissists tend to have a flair for dramatics. The tougher things get, the more they are prone to emotional outbursts from angry tirades to sullen slumps to weepy breakdowns, interspersed by frantic and increasingly frenetic attempts to reassert authority. Given enough time and leeway, a narcissist will turn a team or department into their own destructive cult of personality.
Narcissism is a potential derailer, but paradoxically it can serve businesspeople very will early in their career. The problem is that it tends to get them over-promoted, and their fragile egos make them unable to admit their mistakes.
So what are the markers of narcissism? The narcissistic manager has more ego and ambition than ability, an apparently limitless self-confidence combined with a surprisingly fragile sense of self-worth. Nine key markers of narcissism are:
- They have a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g. exaggerated achievements and talents, expectation to be recognised as superior without commensurate achievements).
- They tend to be preoccupied with fantasies of power, wealth and admiration, far beyond what is realistic.
- They believe that they are special, and should naturally be recognised as such. Prestigious titles, clubs or cars are constantly sought and flaunted.
- They need constant praise and admiration from those around them.
- They have a strong sense of entitlement. They feel they naturally deserve promotions, awards and the admiration of others, even when these are unearned or undeserved
- They see others as a tool to accomplish their own ends. They may try to disguise their self-interest as serving the common good, but this is usually an underhanded tactic to get what they want. This makes them terrible managers.
- They lack empathy. They use other people with seemingly no capacity to understand the thoughts, feelings or goals of others.
- They tend to envy other’s achievements, while believing others are jealous of their natural superiority.
- They are arrogant or imperious both at work and at home. This can be amusing when they are using the full extent of their charms, but is most often just annoying.
Narcissism is unhibited vanity. But the journey from ambition to narcissism may not be that long. And the line between arrogance, vanity and narcissism is a thin one. Beware the bright, good-looking, ambitious narcissists. They are very dangerous. They often have just enough ability to get them into positions of power, and more than enough to create incredible damage once they get that power.