How to exploit the narcissist's talents

They are not team players, but narcissists' lust for success and glory can raise your entire staff's game.

Self-absorbed, egotistical and lacking empathy, narcissists can be a destructive presence in the workplace. They are quick to take credit, deny blame, and lash out at anyone who threatens their self-esteem. Most management literature on these vainglorious manipulators boils down to the same advice: Work for a narcissistic boss? Quit. Employ narcissists? Fire them.

But those are not always realistic options. More important, narcissists, for all their faults, can contribute profitably to an organization — and savvy employers can exploit their traits to the company’s benefit.

For starters, narcissists tend to be uncommonly creative — but only in pairs. A recent study found that teams containing narcissists generate better ideas than those without such individuals. Jack Goncalo, a professor of organizational behaviour at Cornell University, administered a test for narcissistic personality disorder to nearly 300 participants, who were then organized into groups of four and instructed to craft solutions to the problems of a fictitious corporation. Two independent judges later assessed the reports, and gave the highest grades to groups containing members who tested high for narcissism.

The reason, according to the authors, is that narcissists lust for peers’ admiration. Get two of them together, and they will attempt to outdo one another, thus shifting the entire group into a more competitive mindset. Interestingly, more than two narcissists in a group of four is too many; the creativity effect weakens as more join the team, since they can be inconsiderate in brainstorming sessions, cutting off co-workers and generating animosity.

David Thomas, the British author of Narcissism: Behind the Mask, is not surprised by the Cornell team’s findings. “A narcissist can be an asset to an organization, if handled properly,” he says. “You can have teams where there’s no narcissist involved, and they go nowhere because there’s no drive.” Generally, these types’ competitive nature will push them to work hard (narcissists tend to excel in sales and leadership positions), and they are willing to make personal sacrifices to succeed. And motivating them is cheap and easy: they thrive on adulation, so offering them (legitimate) praise is very effective, Thomas says.

But managers need to closely monitor narcissists, says Ben Dattner, principal of Dattner Consulting in New York. Narcissists often overestimate their abilities and take on oversight roles while saddling others with trivial tasks. “A manager has to observe the respective contributions and workloads to ensure there’s fairness,” Dattner says.

What’s more, since narcissists excel at buttering up superiors while treating subordinates less kindly, managers need to be vigilant. Conducting 360-degree performance reviews can give you the necessary wider perspective. But, even then it’s easy to fall under a narcissist’s spell, as Goncalo’s paper illustrates. In another experiment, participants partnered up, with one developing and verbally pitching a movie concept to the other, who then rated the idea based on its creativity. Pitches from narcissists scored better than most. But an independent panel later assessed those ideas in written form and found them to be no more creative than the others.

The experiment shows a key danger: in person, narcissists’ confidence is so infectious that they’re able to sway others, even with mediocre ideas. The risk, the study concludes, is that giving in to that charm will cause the overall performance to decline as “true creative talent is continuously traded for charisma and enthusiasm.”