I recently found an interesting article in the February 2011 “Monitor on Psychology,” a publication of the American Psychological Association. In it there was a bold statement: “Narcissism is on the rise.”
Though it was disputed at the time by researchers who claimed the general population wasn’t any more narcissistic previous years, a consensus has emerged from research psychologists showing a steady rise of narcissistic traits in U.S. culture and among college students — an easy population to study with in-classroom surveys. The presence of narcissism in any population can be of great concern, especially when the rise continues.
Narcissism is part of normal human functioning when it means being resilient and having great confidence in what you do. It is based on real achievements. But today, the widespread use of social media can be an enabler of unhealthy narcissistic traits.
Some of the unhealthy tendencies it allows are for people to self-promote, be self-absorbed, exaggerate their capabilities and not care about their impact on others. Social media also allow people to disclose the minutia of their lives. Narcissism becomes a serious problem when individuals become totally preoccupied with themselves with or without social media.
When did this begin? It seems to have its roots in the ’70s, when focus shifted to nurturing self-esteem in children. Schools, parents, and children’s TV shows tried to achieve this by inculcating a feeling of specialness — separate from a feeling of achievement. Both are necessary for the development of meaningful healthy self-esteem. Specialness is vital to a child’s belief that they are valued as a person, but a feeling of doing something well is the key to self-esteem.
The individualistic, competitive and entitled culture of the U.S. is having great impact on people’s motivation and personal relationships. Contemporary articles suggest that narcissism has continued to rise over the past several years. And it’s not exclusive to young people. Why is this important?
In the workplace, it affects recruiting, advancement and retention of talent. Especially when candidates embellish résumés, climb the ladder of success on the hands and feet of others and are overconfident. It’s also affecting personal relations, as low commitment infects society and the workplace.
Other evidence for the rise of narcissism comes from the rise in cosmetic surgery and the sale of beauty aids for both men and women. Like Narcissus and his reflection in the water, how often do people check the mirrors at home and work? It’s even in celebrity CEOs, who seek so much admiration and approval from others.
One study estimates that 31 percent of CEOs have narcissistic tendencies. These executives have little empathy, exaggerated senses of self-importance and no clue why a coach was hired to work with them. It’s not easy to move them to a different place.
It’s hard to focus their attention on the people they are affecting. They refuse to admit their problem and blame others for their circumstances. However, there are practices to try that will lessen the impact on others, yet not significantly reduce the narcissism. These include reviewing and interpreting subordinate feedback, assuring the executive is in a safe place to talk, suggesting meditation and tracking what intrudes in the silence and why, and focusing on positive behaviors rather than the narcissism.
Business owners who have seen this in their companies are concerned about this behavior because of its corrosive effect on employees. When guiding employees, there’s an important need to be consistent in what is valued and rewarded to empower others with the courage to stand up and say “no” to narcissistic behavior. Creating a clear culture of “we” rather than “me” is an antidote.
Businesses with emphasis on self-awareness as an important leadership trait can, in the development process, require a mature perspective that is balanced on strengths and areas for improvement. A peer review of leadership candidates would identify and flag narcissistic behaviors as disqualifiers.
I’ve written this column to raise awareness of this rising concern and encourage more attempts to reduce its influence in business.