Narcissists at Work

Assistant Professor Jack Goncalo's research shows how and why know-it-all peers can influence creativity in groups such as workplace teams
Know-it-all peers influence creativity
Monday, August 2, 2010

Narcissists are self aggrandizing, self indulgent and self absorbed.

You know the type.

Unbearable, perhaps, but new research led by ILR Professor Jack Goncalo shows how and why narcissists can influence creativity in groups such as workplace teams.

For starters, narcissists are not necessarily more creative than less narcissistic peers, but think they are and are adept at convincing others to share their inflated self views, the research shows.

Three studies led by Goncalo in 2007 and 2008 showed that narcissistic individuals asked to pitch creative ideas to a target person were judged by the targets as being more creative than others.


Narcissists convey more enthusiasm, confidence and charisma while they are selling their ideas to others. Interestingly, however, their ideas were not objectively more creative, Goncalo said in an interview.

"The danger is that the ideas suggested by narcissists might actually be implemented despite the fact that they are not necessarily very good. A constant pattern of selecting style over substance may benefit the narcissist, but can drag down the team," he said. The research findings will be published in "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin."

Contrary to the dominant view that narcissism is a decidedly negative trait, however, the research also shows that narcissists can contribute to a team's creative outcomes, but not on their own, Goncalo said.

A psychologist who is a faculty member of ILR's Department of Organizational Behavior, he explained the finding on narcissism and team creativity.

"There is a curvilinear effect -- having more narcissists is better for generating creative solutions, but having too many narcissists provides diminishing returns," Goncalo said.

In the workplace, for example, "You want creative tension. Narcissists shake things up -- they stimulate competition and provoke controversy."

An atmosphere "that is conducive to creativity is not necessarily related to harmony" and might even lead to improved problem solving, he said.

In a team with too many narcissists, however, "It starts to get chaotic."

Conclusions from the research team, which included Stanford University Professor Francis J. Flynn and Cornell Ph.D. student Sharon H. Kim, suggest:

  • Ideas are viewed as highly creative when pitched with confidence and enthusiasm -- a style narcissists come by instinctively, but that others might learn to imitate.
  • Although most organizations try to select ideas that are objectively creative, the selection process might be contaminated by the style through which ideas are communicated. As a result, creative output might gradually decline as true creative talent is continuously traded for charisma and enthusiasm without substance.
  • To capitalize on narcissistic talent, collaborate with them and encourage them to collaborate with each other. In so doing, groups could turn what is often considered a decidedly negative trait into a valuable source of creative tension. It sometimes works best to assign narcissists to pitching ideas, not creating them.

In the meantime, how does one survive obnoxious know-it-all narcissists?

Watch the way they work and learn from their style, Goncalo advises.

"Having a creative idea is not enough, unless you know how to sell it to others. Be confident. Be enthusiastic."

"Never be self deprecating," he said. "While the rest of us are being modest and polite, the narcissists may be getting ahead."