The scientific case for hiring a narcissist

Labeling narcissistic personality traits as objectively bad can work against us.
Labeling narcissistic personality traits as objectively bad can work against us.
Image: Reuters/Larry Downing
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When it comes to hiring, most managers want applicants who are not only smart, conscientiousness, and collaborative, but also humble, honest, and considerate.

If you are nodding your head in agreement, stop—research says you’re wrong.

Mounting evidence suggests that extolling “bright” personality traits (think generosity, heightened regard for others’ wellbeing, optimism) while simultaneously demonizing “dark” traits (such as arrogance, willingness to manipulate others, singular focus on one’s own goals) is not only misguided, but may cause many to miss out on valuable potential talent.

In one 2017 study, people who bear more pronounced dark personality traits have been found to provide unique skills and substantial benefits for a team or workplace, while those with stronger bright traits were found to hinder workplace productivity and growth.

We’re human. Meaning we can’t simply dismiss or ignore the darker traits that most of us have in abundance, like narcissism, Machiavellianism, hubris, or psychopathy.

But the research implies that we do not need to self-consciously take responsibility and apologize for these dark traits. According to more and more reports and discussions, we should unleash them. In moderation, of course.

Bright vs. dark

Take narcissism, a stereotypically dark trait associated with self-promotion and the incessant need for admiration. Yet, particularly narcissistic employees prove valuable in trumpeting the accomplishments of an organization, engaging consumers, and drawing attention to a worthwhile project or achievement. Those with dark traits can also be psychologically better equipped to cope with constructive criticism and may recover relatively swiftly from negative attention, like handling a product recall in the midst of bad PR.

Those bright, prosocial employees—altruistic, concerned for others—can be sensitive to aggression and may burn out easier, hurting their performance, team productivity, and the overall organization in the process. The employee brimming with bright, traditionally positive traits is not always the most productive (not to mention, these self-assessed traits are often difficult to quantify). An over-concern with others’ wellbeing may also entail an adverse concern with approval from others. Kindness is a beneficial trait, but being too nice or too agreeable can stop someone from speaking up to protest bad ideas and bad behavior, like misconduct.

In other scenarios, a person may be so preoccupied with keeping the peace that they force their team to default to groupthink, the quagmire of collective brainstorming that notoriously stilts creativity and decision making.

A bright trait-dominant person may be so conscientious that they’re overly anxious, hung up on details to the detriment of productivity, stubborn or resistant to change—and ultimately failing to get work done.

So, which is better for your next hire—dark traits or bright traits?

The answer, of course, is both and neither at the same time.

Putting an overly conscientious individual into a highly creative role might not be a good fit, for example, if they focus so much on details that they constrict the creative process. At the same time, placing a highly narcissistic person at the forefront of creative efforts can lead to risky, bombastic, and self-centered efforts that can also hurt an organization.

We can’t avoid the reality that employees—again, humans—have both bright and dark traits. The real key is for good managers to know when to capitalize and draw on each, depending on the role and task at hand.

The personality test

So far, predictive analytics tools provide the best formula to determine the right personality traits for a specific job. Using total personality data on applicants, paired with indicators of job success, algorithmic modeling ignores social labels of dark and bright and clearly identifies the level of different personality traits that are most predictive of success.

The result is a decision-tree model used in scoring screening tools during the application process, thereby establishing the appropriate level with unprecedented accuracy.

Using neuroscience research to test for appropriate personalities has given us a new bar for measuring a person’s value and potential for a given job.

It’s also prompted new challenges and a new metric for success and failure. People have started developing workarounds and ways to trick algorithms into identifying the desired personality traits for a job, whether accurate or not.

The process of identifying the “right levels” of personality for a given role or job is essential but delicate. Think of it as adding the right amount of seasoning (your personality) to a recipe (your job)—too little and the food is bland; too much and the dish is rendered inedible.

By assessing the full spectrum of employees’ personalities and matching both light and dark traits to job requirements, we can however  prevent putting people with the wrong traits in the wrong jobs.

For example, a highly conscientious and agreeable person may not be the best fit for a role where the employee needs to be innovative and think outside the box. On the flip side, a person who tends to be more narcissistic might not be the ideal candidate for a comptroller position.

Cultivating complex, sometimes-clashing personalities to their—and your business’s—benefit begins long before you hire. Start with a job analysis that not only identifies the work that needs to get done, but also the necessary employee characteristics, like personality.

A new type of analysis

Make sure you aren’t biasing your analysis to only the bright traits: Be intentional about incorporating dark traits where they will serve a purpose. If a job requires thick skin—perhaps it’s a role in public relations, or a customer-facing field like the service industry, or even the CEO of a high-profile company—you might need someone who knows how to wield their own narcissism for the betterment of a team or a project. If a job requires someone to be promotional, sprinkle in some hubris.

There is a limit, of course—I’m sure we can all imagine what a complete narcissist can do to a team.

Though the research is still emergent, it feels safe to say that rather than good or bad, personality traits are just that: different types of people, each with different skills to offer. There are some very good reasons to hire the jerk, and just as valid reasons to not hire the saint—even if you could actually find one.