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Can ‘me, me, me’ be good for workplace ‘we’?

CORNELL (US)—Employees with an inflated ego may be self-aggrandizing, self-indulgent, and self-absorbed, but they may actually be good for the workplace—if anyone can stand to be around them.

Narcissists are not necessarily more creative than their peers, but they think they are, and they are adept at convincing others to share their inflated view of themselves, says Jack Goncalo, assistant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University.

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.

New research finds that narcissists are able to influence creativity in groups and in the workplace because they convey more enthusiasm, confidence, and charisma while they are selling their ideas to others.

The findings will be published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“The danger is that the ideas suggested by narcissists might actually be implemented despite the fact that they are not necessarily very good,” Goncalo says.

“A constant pattern of selecting style over substance may benefit the narcissist, but can drag down the team.”

The research also shows that narcissists can contribute to a team’s creative outcomes—but not on their own.

“There is a curvilinear effect—having more narcissists is better for generating creative solutions, but having too many narcissists provides diminishing returns.”

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

But a work setting “that is conducive to creativity is not necessarily related to harmony” and might even lead to improved problem solving, he says. On a team with too many narcissists, however, “it starts to get chaotic.”

The study also finds:

  • Ideas are viewed as highly creative when pitched with confidence and enthusiasm—a style narcissists come by instinctively, but that others can 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. Hence, creative output might gradually decline as true creative talent is continuously traded for charisma and enthusiasm without substance.
  • To capitalize on narcissistic talent, colleagues should collaborate with narcissists and encourage them to collaborate with each other. Groups may turn a negative trait into a valuable source of creative tension. It sometimes works best to assign narcissists to pitching ideas, not creating them.

Co-workers can survive obnoxious, know-it-all narcissists by watching the way they work and learning from their style, Goncalo advises.

“Having a creative idea is not enough, unless you know how to sell it to others. While the rest of us are being modest and polite, the narcissists may be getting ahead.”

Researchers from Stanford University contributed to the study.

More news from Cornell University: www.news.cornell.edu

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