3 Reasons Why Narcissists in Your Organization are Impossible to Evaluate

Use these pointers to break the spell of a charming, yet ineffective, narcissist.

learn more about Joel B. Carnevale

By Joel B. Carnevale

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You recently hired someone who seemed to have all the markings of an ideal candidate — they were highly intelligent, poised and self-assured, and possessed a charming demeaner that conveyed warmth and friendliness. It was only later that you realized they were highly arrogant and self-absorbed, prone to hostility when receiving feedback and constructive criticism, and generally difficult to work with.

Though hypothetical, the above example illustrates the broader problem many organizations face: avoiding errors in judgement when evaluating the aptitude and suitability of current and future employees. While the sources of such errors in judgement are numerous, it can be useful to identify those factors most likely to interfere with our ability to make accurate evaluations.

For example, narcissists often possess highly desirable characteristics (e.g., confidence, charisma) that can ultimately mask or distort their less desirable qualities (e.g., entitlement, arrogance.) To avoid falling under the spell of a charismatic narcissist when conducting evaluations, it's important to understand how they exploit our cognitive limitations in the first place.

Related: Are Entrepreneurs Narcissists?

1. Love at first sight, disdain at second glance

One reason narcissists can be difficult to evaluate is because their manipulative and toxic tendencies are often not always immediately identifiable. Narcissists tend to make very favorable first impressions during initial interactions with others and are subsequently viewed less favorably as time goes on. According to research, this is because narcissists tend to look and behave in ways that match our beliefs and expectations of what constitutes a positive first impression. They tend to be well-groomed, confident, outgoing, and funny. Over time, however, narcissists' negative qualities — like arrogance, a strong sense of entitlement, hostility, selfishness — become more salient. As a result, people tend to become quickly disenchanted with and form highly negative impressions of narcissists the longer they get to know them.

Narcissists not only tend to be viewed more negatively over time, but the highly positive impressions they initially make means they might be selected into positions that they are unsuited for in the first place. For example, research suggests that narcissists may be more likely to get promoted into leadership positions with lower work experience than their less narcissistic counterparts. Once in these positions, their followers tend to view them increasingly unfavorably as they become more familiar with them.

2. Never meet your heroes

Another reason narcissists can be difficult to evaluate is because they possess characteristics that naturally exploit our tendency to think at different levels of abstraction. Research in cognitive psychology shows that how we think about events, situations, and even people differ based on how psychologically distant we are from them. For example, when we consider the idea of leadership at a higher level of construal, we tend to focus on abstract qualities (e.g., visionary, charismatic) and form simplistic mental models of what leadership looks like. Conversely, when we consider leadership at a lower level of construal, we tend to focus on more concrete qualities, like the presence of positive interactions, ability to provide emotional support when necessary, and willingness to establish a transparent and inclusive environment.

The qualities narcissists possess naturally map on to these different levels of abstraction that we form, potentially distorting our evaluations of them. For example, research suggests that followers' perceptions of their narcissistic leaders' effectiveness depend on the amount of direct exposure followers have to the narcissistic leader. Followers who have little direct exposure to their narcissistic leaders are much more likely to rate them as effective because the narcissists' prototypical leadership characteristics (e.g., vision, charisma, confidence) are much more salient, whereas followers who have direct exposure to the narcissist tend to view them as less effective because their toxic interpersonal tendencies (e.g., demeaning, inability to take criticism, interpersonally cold and dismissive) are more salient.

Given that narcissists can influence our judgements in such ways, it may be necessary to account for psychological distance when evaluating those with narcissistic tendencies. For instance, when evaluating the effectiveness of those in leadership positions, it would be especially important to consider the extent to which followers directly interact with the leader as it might give you a more complete picture of the effectiveness of your organization's leadership.

Related: 16 Characteristics of Critical Thinkers

3. All style, no substance

When forming judgements about other people, there are any number of cognitive tripwires over which we might stumble that can inhibit our ability to make an optimal decision. For example, rather than judging others' competence based on relevant factors such as the quality of the content, our assessments can be influenced merely by the individuals' tone or style.

Such cognitive limitations can put us at a serious disadvantage when attempting to evaluate a highly charismatic and confident narcissist. Research suggests that narcissists are particularly adept at convincing us that their ideas are great, even when they are not. This is because narcissists tend to be highly enthusiastic and charming when selling their ideas, which exploits our default mental schemas of what a prototypically creative person should be.

What can be done? Simply recognizing your susceptibility to irrelevant information when judging the ideas of others, especially narcissists, is a good place to start. In addition, relying on as much objective criteria as possible during evaluation can help ensure you're not succumbing to the seductive allure of a passionate, yet largely inept, narcissist.

Related: The Science of the First Impression: 5 Elements of a Great First Impression

Joel B. Carnevale

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Assistant Professor of Management at Syracuse University

Joel Carnevale is an assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management. His research focuses on employee ethicality, prosocial behavior and the dark-side of leader personality.

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