How to spot a narcissist

This article is actually titled, “How to Spot an Incompetent Leader” but it’s really all about how to spot a narcissist (who happen to make very incompetent leaders, but, perversely, are very good at making people think otherwise, at least at first).  What’s funny, though, is it’s actually suprisingly easy to identify a narcissist– just ask them if they are.

The good news is that science has found a way to combat this problem. For some time now, we have had at our disposal scientifically valid assessments to predict and avoid managerial and leadership incompetence. Even simple tests that may initially seem innocuous or ineffective can predict whether someone is likely to be an incompetent leader. The underlying reason is that there are systematic individual differences in how people present themselves, and these differences predict people’s leadership style and competence. When you are able to put thousands of leaders through the same self-report questionnaires, and you link their responses to their leadership style, performance, and effectiveness, you can identify the key patterns of self-presentation that characterize good and bad leaders.

Consider the following questions, which are characteristic of science-based assessments used to evaluate leadership potential and match people to jobs. Hundreds of independent scientific studies have used such questions to predict the future competence levels of leaders. The process is really quite straightforward: you compare the responses of different leaders and correlate them to their levels of performance (i.e., how they impact their teams and organizations). To the degree that a question is useful to predict whether a leader will have positive or negative effects on their teams, it is retained and used to calculate a general competence coefficient (to take the actual assessment and find out your score, go here):

  1. Do you have an exceptional talent for leadership?
  2. Would most people want to be like you?
  3. Do you rarely make mistakes at work?
  4. Are you blessed with a natural charisma?
  5. Are you able to achieve anything you want, just by putting your mind to it?
  6. Do you have a special gift for playing office politics?
  7. Are you destined to be successful?
  8. Is it easier for you to fool people, than for people to fool you?
  9. Are you just too talented to fake humility?

Why are such simple self-report assessments able to predict incompetent leadership? Because they can reliably measure arrogance and overconfidence. People with these tendencies, including narcissistic individuals, are typically uninterested in portraying themselves in humble ways. Consider this recent academic paper, based on 11 independent experiments, showing that you can spot narcissists with just one question: “Are you a narcissist?” The surprising findings here is not that an outright or transparent question is enough to identify narcissists, but that narcissists are (a) somewhat self-aware of their narcissisms, and (b) rather proud of it. In other words, people who love themselves disproportionately are often proud of their egos and more aware of their delusions than one may think.

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