Think MBA Students Are Arrogant? Blame Their Narcissistic Teachers

Over the past decade, academics have produced a steady stream of research on the problems posed by narcissistic executives. Narcissists create toxic work environments, spend more lavishly, and tend toward risky decision-making. They’re also more likely to engage in white-collar crime. Research has also shown that business school students are more narcissistic than students in other disciplines. Not all research points to narcissism as a bad thing in a business setting, but the question remains: What should management programs do to develop less self-involved students?

A team of researchers from Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., believe one solution can be found at the front of the classroom. “If you want less narcissistic business grads, it might help you to hire less narcissistic faculty,” says Jim Westerman, one of the authors who will present a new paper at the annual meeting of the Western Academy of Management later this month.

To reach that conclusion, Westerman and his colleagues collected a survey called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory from 536 students and 16 instructors at a public university in the southeastern U.S. They cross-referenced the results with the final grades and students’ subjective assessments of instructors and courses. It turned out that those students who scored more highly on the narcissism test got better grades in courses taught by highly narcissistic professors. Students with lower narcissism scores got lower grades and found courses taught by narcissists more difficult.

“The more narcissistic faculty seemed to have a dual effect which is of dismay to those who desire reduced levels of narcissism in business education,” the paper says. “They discouraged less narcissistic students, yet rewarded and provided a potential model for future behavior for more highly narcissistic students through their enhanced status.”

This isn’t the Appalachian State researchers’ first attempt to find a solution to B-school narcissism. In a 2010 article published on Businessweek’s website, Daly and Westerman suggested that MBA programs should screen out narcissists in the application process, rein in grade inflation, and require students to study abroad in hopes of making them less self-absorbed.

Now Westerman wants to expand the faculty-narcissism study to more universities and reach deeper into the role of instructors, which sounds like a good idea. Research has shown that the millennial generation is more narcissistic than previous generations, and the members are beginning to enter the professorial ranks.

That may soon include Fabrice Tourre, the former Goldman Sachs banker found liable for securities fraud last year. “Fabulous Fab,” as Tourre famously referred to himself, was reported last week to be in line for a gig teaching undergraduate economics at the University of Chicago—although subsequent reports said he would teach graduate students instead.

If the latest research bears out, Westerman hopes business schools will seek to hire less narcissistic professors. “Business schools have a social responsibility to address” student narcissism, he says. “This research suggests a potential tool that’s right in front of them.”

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