In Greek mythology, a hunter named Narcissus fell in love with himself when he saw his own image reflected in a pool of water.
Sadly, self-obsessed narcissists are no myth in the modern workplace, revealing themselves in tendencies like taking credit for others’ hard work, name-dropping and hogging the centre of attention.
Perhaps even more troubling, narcissists also seem to enjoy positions of power and privilege. Anecdotally, in the political sphere, psychologists have labelled US President Donald Trump a textbook narcissist, citing classic traits such as a demeaning and domineering approach and operating under a different set of rules to others.
Until now, it was assumed narcissists tended to clinch powerful positions for themselves. However, recent research suggests that power itself may create narcissists.
In a paper published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Associate Professor Nicole Mead from the University of Melbourne found that endowing people with social power inflates the socially-toxic component of narcissism called exploitation and entitlement.
“Narcissists can feel a sense of entitlement – they expect and demand respect from others as well as special privileges,” says Dr Mead, who is based in the Department of Management and Marketing in the Faculty of Business and Economics.
“They are willing to exploit others to get what they want.”
Give them power and those people can turn into oppressors and bullies.
“While power doesn’t turn everyone into a destructive tyrant, it has pernicious effects when it gets into the hands of those who want it most,” says Associate Professor Mead.
“Power increased narcissism only among those with high-baseline testosterone – people who want to achieve and retain positions of power.”
Dr Mead, a social psychologist, delved into the relationship between power and narcissism in part to help explain the socially toxic behaviours of powerful people, which she saw as resembling narcissistic behaviour.
“Those who enjoy power try to keep it even at the expense of others,” she says.
To test their theory that social power inflates narcissism among people with high testosterone, Dr Mead and her colleagues recruited 206 men and women. They took saliva samples from each participant and told them they were joining in a team dynamics study.
Each person was asked to complete tasks framed as measures of leadership abilities. All participants were told they achieved the best leadership score but only half of participants were told they would be “boss” of a group task. This meant they could control their subordinates and the rewards associated with the group task. The other half were told they had equal control over the same task.
Narcissism was assessed using the most commonly used measure of narcissism, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Corruption was measured with a scale that taps into people’s willingness to misuse their power.
Because men have higher testosterone levels than women, the researchers standardised testosterone levels within each gender. This means the researchers were able to examine how people react to power when they have relatively high or low testosterone levels for their gender.
The study shows that men and women with low baseline testosterone for their gender don’t become narcissists when put in a position of power.
However, those who have high testosterone levels for their gender show an increase in the exploitative-entitlement component of narcissism when bestowed with power. Increased narcissism in turn explained their enhanced willingness to misuse their power.
“Power is an essential component of social life,” Associate Professor Mead says.
“Although the corrupting nature of power has been noted for centuries, the way it changes how people see themselves in relation to others remained an enigma. We thought narcissistic self-views may be a missing piece of the puzzle for understanding how power corrupts.”
The results of the study suggest that people with high testosterone may be inclined to misuse their power because having it over others makes them feel entitled to special treatment.
“This research is some of the first to look at factors that fuel the rise of narcissism and to pinpoint the change in self-views that can explain the corrupting influence of power,” says Dr Mead.
“Moreover, the work shows that the destructive effects of power were not due to narcissistic feelings of superiority but rather narcissistic feelings that one is special and should be treated accordingly. Feelings of exploitation and entitlement may help those who crave power to retain a power gap between themselves and others.”
When scanning the workplace for pro-social leaders, it’s optimal to look for “actual signs of talent, competence and skill rather than people who brag that they have those skills”, says Dr Mead.
So, beware the boss who trumpets themselves, acts with an air of domination or feels entitled to take your chair in a meeting – they may be poised to unleash their inner, lurking narcissist.