Does It Matter If B-Schools Produce Narcissists?

Photograph by Mattias Edwall

Commentary in the popular press and systematic empirical research both suggest that levels of narcissism are increasing among college students. James Westerman and Joseph Daly’s evidence shows that business school students are more narcissistic than others, such as psychology students. The millennial generation, raised by “helicopter parents” focused on their every success, comes in for particular criticism.

The research raises two questions: Why might business school students be more narcissistic; more important, is this a problem?

The answer to the first question seems clear. A recent study found a relationship between narcissism and materialism. To make the obvious point, business school students are likely to show higher levels of materialism than English majors, to take one extreme example. Also, the qualities commonly associated in research studies with narcissism—such as competitiveness, being willing to expect and ask for more, extraversion, emergent leadership, and enhanced performance on tasks that get publicly evaluated—are all things that most business school (and for that matter other) admissions processes are likely to select for.

Once in business school, students confront an environment in which cheating is more common than in other majors and whose consequences for poor academic performance are low to nonexistent, particularly in graduate programs. Both of these environmental factors would increase a sense of entitlement as students face few-to-no adverse consequences for poor behavior. Narcissists would also take well to a context in which classroom evaluations reward the frequency of participation, something students with higher opinions of their thoughts would excel at.

The second question is tougher. While narcissistic leaders often behave in ways that exact a price on their subordinates and maybe even their organizations, sociobiologists have long ago acknowledged that the behaviors and personal qualities that are helpful for the individual in a group and what is good for the group as a whole are not necessarily the same thing. There are trade-offs. Because business schools receive donations mostly from individuals or from companies controlled by one or a few individuals, and because B-school rankings depend mostly on the individual success (and evaluations) of graduates, it is completely sensible for B-schools to worry more about individual than organizational outcomes.

With respect to individuals, the research tells a reasonably consistent story. University of California, Berkeley professor Jennifer Chatman and Stanford professor Charles O’Reilly studied narcissism levels among high-technology chief executive officers in Silicon Valley. They found that narcissistic leaders remained in their positions longer and earned more, particularly compared with other executives in their companies. Further research shows that asking for help is both effective and—because it violates people’s norms about being self-sufficient—is not done nearly enough. Narcissists tend to be more willing to ask for and expect help, and this behavior will help make them more successful. Holding higher expectations for one’s salary almost certainly will help produce higher incomes. (One of the reasons sometimes given for women earning less than men is that women feel less deserving and therefore are less likely to negotiate over their salaries, or do so with less vigor than men.)

People want to associate with winners: people who are going places and therefore can help them. Narcissists, who have higher levels of self-esteem, display more confidence and do more things that will cause them to stand out-—such as being assertive—thereby attracting more people and greater talent to their team. As former Harvard professor Michael Macoby noted years ago, some of the most notable entrepreneurs and chief executives exhibited high levels of narcissism; that’s why his book was titled The Productive Narcissist.

Maybe business schools are doing just what they should: selecting precisely the people who have the greatest chance of being individually successful and putting them in environments that reward self-promotion and competitive success.

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