Breeding Narcissists

New study suggests that narcissistic business students thrive under narcissistic professors, while less narcissistic students suffer, to the detriment of all.

April 6, 2016
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Much has been written about the effects of toxic leaders in business, but a new study suggests that toxic business professors -- specifically narcissists -- wreak havoc in the classroom, at least for their more modest students. More narcissistic students, meanwhile, may benefit from having similarly self-obsessed instructors. The study’s authors argue that their findings have implications for instruction as a new generation of graduates seeks jobs in industry.

“Considering the evidence indicating significant increases in narcissism among millennials and even higher levels of narcissism among business students, we must work toward a greater understanding of the role of business higher education in stemming this tide,” the paper says. “As millennials enter the faculty ranks, will they be disproportionately narcissistic? … Will they be enhancing the employment prospects of our more narcissistic students to the detriment of their organizations and the business community?”

Maybe. Summarizing its findings, the paper says that whether students and professors are similarly narcissistic is "significantly related to a student’s final grade in the class, such that less congruence was associated with lower course grades, and that this association is partially mediated by perceived professor status and class difficulty.” In other words, nonnarcissistic students tended to earn lower grades from more narcissistic professors, thought their classes were harder and held them in less esteem. More narcissistic students, meanwhile, tended to thrive academically and revere those professors.

Faculty Narcissism and Student Outcomes in Business and Higher Education: A Student-Faculty Fit Analysis,” in The International Journal of Management Education, was written by Appalachian State University scholars James W. Westerman, the James E. Holshouser Distinguished Professor in Ethics in management; Brian G. Whitaker, an assistant professor of management; Jacqueline Z. Bergman, a professor of management; Shawn W. Bergman, associate professor of psychology; and Joseph P. Daly, professor of management.

The paper draws on existing research suggesting that college students are becoming ever more self-centered and that business students are particularly narcissistic, that narcissism is associated with numerous counterproductive measures in the classroom and in the workplace, and that personality similarities between instructors and students correlate positively with educational outcomes. The study itself examines the relationship between the personality alignment of faculty members and students in terms of narcissism, along with student perceptions of a professor’s status, the perceived difficulty of the class and student outcomes.

A quick primer on narcissists based on details from the study: they have inflated but vulnerable self-views, can’t regulate their self-esteem and rely on others for affirmation. Narcissism has been associated with a number of dangerous behaviors in business, including white-collar crime, aggression and risky decision making.

The study ultimately involved 267 undergraduate business students at an unnamed, comprehensive state university in the Southeast, in 21 classes with nine instructors. Participants completed a survey in the middle of the semester, volunteering information on age, gender, cumulative grade point average and personality traits used to assess narcissism levels. (The exact tool was the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which contains 40 paired statements from which participants must choose, such as “I can usually talk my way out of anything” versus “I try to accept the consequences of my behavior.”) The survey also included questions about perceptions of professor status, such as whether he or she was deserving of respect, and perceptions of class difficulty. Students agreed to have their final course grades and attendance shared with the researchers at the end of the term.

Greater differences in student and faculty narcissism were significantly and negatively related to student course grades, with a P value of .040. (While P values have come under fire in recent years for being insufficient expressions of scientific significance, many scientists still consider a P value of less than 0.05 to be significant evidence against the assumption being tested.)

Perceptions of professor status positively related to narcissism congruence, controlling for class difficulty (p=.047), meaning that more narcissistic professors were more revered by their more narcissistic students. Perceptions of professor status were found to mediate the negative relationship between the narcissism differential and course grade, while perceptions of class difficulty were negatively associated with narcissism congruence, controlling for perceptions of professor status (p=.001), and mediated the influence of the narcissism differential on course grade.

More narcissistic faculty “may be particularly problematic to business higher education’s efforts to reduce narcissism within its student population,” the paper says. “Less narcissistic students struggled in classes with more narcissistic faculty, receiving lower grades, perceiving higher class difficulty and also viewing the faculty member as possessing lower status.” In contrast, “more highly narcissistic students thrived with narcissistic faculty, viewing the class as less difficult and earning higher grades.”

Worrisome, however, is that these students viewed their more narcissistic professors as being of a higher status. According to the paper, higher narcissism among faculty members “seemed to have a dual relationship, which is of dismay to those who desire reduced levels of narcissism in business education -- they discouraged less narcissistic students, yet rewarded and provided a potential model for more highly narcissistic students through their enhanced status.”

As a result, the paper says, student-faculty fit on narcissism may play “a critical role in reducing narcissism, with more highly narcissistic faculty being a linchpin in any strategy to reduce it in the classroom.”

How? The faculty selection process may be enhanced to consider narcissism levels in future hires and avoid hiring highly narcissistic people, or to recommend cognitive behavioral therapy or other interventions for current narcissistic faculty (no small task). Less invasively, less narcissistic faculty members who are esteemed by other faculty members may be recruited as behavioral mentors.

Westerman, the paper’s lead author, said the paper has received much interest from the those in business, colleagues, students and the general public. A few academic journals have said there isn’t much interest in the topic, or that it’s something that can’t be changed, he added, calling that attitude “defensive and misguided.”

“If narcissistic managers create toxic work environments, as other studies seem to indicate, universities with more highly narcissistic business faculty run the risk of disproportionately and inadvertently recommending less functional students to potential employers,” Westerman said.


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