Narcissists are a blast to interview and work with — initially. In the fullness of time, however, working with a narcissist is a nightmare. Firing a narcissist is no fun either: they do not shy away from litigation, because in narcissists’ minds they are always right.
Because narcissists interview so well, it is important to understand how they act and think. This way employers can avoid being “fooled” into hiring a charismatic narcissist who will cost them dearly down the road.
WHO AND WHAT IS A NARCISSIST?
Narcissistic personality disorder is a disorder in which a person is excessively preoccupied with personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity, mentally unable to see the destructive damage they are causing to themselves and others.
The term “narcissism” comes from Greek myth. Narcissus, a handsome Greek youth, rejected the desperate advances of the nymph Echo. These advances eventually led Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to consummate his love, Narcissus “lay gazing enraptured into the pool, hour after hour,” and finally changed into a flower that bears his name, the narcissus.
Many experts use the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, to diagnose narcissism. DSM-5 criteria for narcissistic personality disorder include these features:
- Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
- Exaggerating your achievements and talents
- Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
- Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
- Requiring constant admiration
- Having a sense of entitlement
- Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
- Taking advantage of others to get what you want
- Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Being envious of others and believing others envy you
- Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner
Although some features of narcissistic personality disorder may seem like having confidence, it’s not the same. Narcissistic personality disorder crosses the border of healthy confidence into thinking so highly of yourself that you put yourself on a pedestal and value yourself more than you value others.
WHY DO NARCISSISTS INTERVIEW SO WELL?
Narcissists typically interview exceedingly well. Why? According to a widely published study, narcissists make great first impressions. They tend to be well-dressed, use charming facial expressions, display self-assured body movements, and use verbal humor on their targets. These traits are relevant because they “are related to four generally valued aspects of targets: attractiveness, competence, interpersonal warmth, and humor.” In addition, narcissists tend to be highly extraverted, and extraversion is one of the most visible and most accurately perceived personality traits. High levels of extraversion are important because extraversion is a leading indicator of leadership emergence.
According to Select International, “narcissists have an almost magical ability to present themselves favorably to strangers. Their skills have been honed for years in an obsessed struggle for power and esteem. They know exactly what you want to hear, feel and see in a candidate. They will show you extraversion, social boldness, solid decision making abilities and a proactive stance to addressing problems. They focus you on their track record of innovation, creativity and accomplishments, and they skillfully mask their shortcomings. So directed are they that the skilled interviewer may get a “too good to be true” feel about the interview with the narcissist. Their self-descriptions may sound like you are reading from a textbook and their stories of work experiences may resonate like tales of epic heroism. Yet, without some measures of personality, correctly diagnosing a narcissist in an interview is close to impossible.”
In one study of narcissistic behavior, participants met for leaderless group discussions over several weeks. After the first discussion, narcissistic group members were described as “confident, entertaining, and physically attractive,” but by the end of the study they were rated negatively and described using adjectives such as “hostile, arrogant, and cold.” In other words, narcissists appear to be skillful at initiating relationships but unable to maintain them over time.
HOW TO WEED OUT NARCISSISTIC JOB CANDIDATES
Eliminating narcissists from your job candidate pool requires two elements: a perceptive interviewer who conducts a well-planned interview — with questions and comments that elicit narcissistic behavior. The task is not easy, but here are some tools to guide your company’s interviewer(s):
- Ask the candidate about his or her best attributes and achievements, and look for signs of bragging or exaggerating, or droning on excessively
- Deep into the interview talk about yourself and/or share a positive or negative experience you have had; watch the narcissist’s eyes glaze over or watch him immediately talk about his good or bad experience without the self-awareness to think or care about you (this tip applies at social events and parties as well)
- Narcissists are typically high energy, interesting, and very talkative in interviews — distinguish their talk and energy from proven experience and ability
- Narcissists rarely err — in their own minds; probe them for specific work instances in their past that they regret or would change; if the candidate wouldn’t change a thing about his past or it’s always “someone else’s fault,” you may be interviewing a narcissist
- Try to observe your candidate in a variety of settings before you make the decision to hire him or her; that includes not only in-office interviews, but also at lunch or dinner, at happy hour or a social event, and in other potentially revealing settings
- Narcissists often distort the truth when they’re with you in face-to-face situations; discover from as many sources as you can about this candidate’s actual credentials (unfortunately, I have seen more than one company stop performing a background check because its owners were sure — solely on the strength of the “great” interview — that this was the perfect candidate)
- Do not engage in confirmation bias: after a seemingly “great” interview do not discount or dismiss bad information about the candidate (e.g. prior failed businesses; questionable associations; incredible explanations about past history)
- Do not rush your decision or immediately hand over the keys to the kingdom to your new employee or partner; I have seen many a quick romance fail the test of time
- A recent study showed that men tend to be more narcissistic than women
When hiring, first consider the job candidate that you already know — an internal candidate with a proven record. If you must hire an external candidate, which is often the case, do not be awed by the narcissist’s charm and energy. Distinguish between confidence and arrogance; between self-knowledge and self-importance; and between the pursuit of excellence versus the need for power.
In sum, conduct a thoughtful interview that brings out the best, and worst, in candidates. Always question yourself when you believe a candidate is too good to be true — you just may be right.