Is There a Problem?

“Levels of narcissism are increasing among college students, says Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer at Stanford’s business school.” Worse, “business school students are more narcissistic than others.” But, surprisingly, he adds that may not be so bad. (See Businessweek, “Does It Matter If B-Schools Produce Narcissists?”)

He refers to a study published two years ago in the very same magazine that makes it clear narcissism is a serious disorder: “As students, narcissists exploit others, are arrogant and haughty, and unable to empathize with others. They are poor team players, at a time when employers are demanding enhanced team skills. Narcissists blame others for failures, take undeserved credit for success, are hypersensitive to negative feedback, and show an exaggerated sense of entitlement.” (See “The Rising Tide of Narcissism: What B-Schools Can Do.”)

To counter this damning list of negatives, the Stanford professor notes, “narcissistic leaders remained in their positions longer and earned more, particularly compared with other executives in their companies. . . . Narcissists tend to be more willing to ask for and expect help, and this behavior will help make them more successful.” Moreover, having “higher expectations for one’s salary almost certainly will help produce higher incomes.”

These are not powerful arguments, certainly not for the actual added value that narcissists offer their organizations. Moreover, the benefits can be explained by the fact that, as he went on to say, “People want to associate with winners: people who are going places and therefore can help them.” If narcissists “have higher levels of self-esteem, display more confidence and do more things that will cause them to stand out,” this does not mean they actually have better ideas, achieve more, or make better leaders. It just makes them more attractive. Their focus is on image and impression, not values and skill.

So why is narcissism now getting a better press? Over 30 years ago, Christopher Lasch proposed that ours is a Culture of Narcissism. As Professor Pfeffer claims, that is even more true now. But as we get more narcissistic, is narcissism losing its negative implication. Are we getting so used to it that we no longer see it as the problem it is?

One possibility: narcissists now are working assiduously to change their image and reputation. Professor Pfeffer suggests something like this when he notes that while narcissistic leaders “thrive individually,” they “often behave in ways that exact a price on their subordinates and maybe even their organizations.” As a result, it may be “completely sensible for B-schools to worry more about individual than organizational outcomes” because that way they are setting themselves up to get endowed chairs, new buildings, new programs and higher rankings from their narcissistic graduates. The organizations their graduates work for will not reward them but the graduates themselves are thriving and grateful, and they are gaining recognition.

Another possibility: the shift in attitude towards narcissists may make it harder to see the forest for the trees. Overwhelmed with the many specific problems our narcissists have given rise to – such as corruption, cheating, child abuse, governmental dysfunction, income disparity, materialism and heightened competition – we no longer pay attention to the underlying problem. Why complain about the unpleasant interpersonal qualities of “narcissism” when we are burdened and oppressed with the particular forms of virulent behavior it gives rise to? Those are by far the bigger problems we face.