Dazzled By the Interview, You Might Lose That Fee If the Star Is A Narcissist

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Apr 26, 2012

Narcissists do better in job interviews than the rest of us. And, if a recent study is any indication, they’re getting hired more often than the more modest of us.

How can it be that a trait most of us consider obnoxious can actually improve the chances of someone acing an interview?

Simple, says Peter Harms, assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a co-author of a study to be published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Most of us are entirely too modest about our accomplishments. While we might start off promoting ourselves and talking about our accomplishments, as interviewers press us, we tend to ease off on our self-promotion.

Narcissists, on the other hand, not only stand their ground, they escalate their efforts.

“When feeling challenged, they tend to double down,” Harms said. “It’s as if they say ‘Oh, you’re going to challenge me? Then I’m not just great, I’m fantastic.’ And in this setting (job interview), it tended to work.”

“It comes off as being really authentic,” Harms told the Omaha World-Herald. “The way they (narcissists) behave on an everyday basis is how other people have to pretend to be in an interview.”

That may be why that sendout who thrilled you in the phoner, and wowed them  in person, didn’t make it past 90 days.

One writer has called narcissists, “the most deadly personality in the workplace.” Even when the narcissism isn’t so severe as to characterized as a disorder, workers with those traits can be difficult.

“On the whole,” says Harms, “we find very little evidence that narcissists are more or less effective workers. But what we do know is that they can be very disruptive and destructive when dealing with other people on a regular basis. If everything else is equal, it probably is best to avoid hiring them.”

While the job interview is no place to be shy, there is a fine line between self-confidence and abject narcissism. The problem is, as the researchers in this study discovered, it’s hard even for the best trained interviewers to discern where the line is.

In the first of the two-part study, 72 volunteers were put through a simulated job interview by expert interviewers. Those identified in an earlier assessment as narcissistic, increased their efforts to look better when challenged by the interviewer. Others, backed down.

Then, in part two, recorded interviews of candidates were reviewed and rated by evaluators. The 222 raters were consistent in awarding more positive evaluations to the self-promoters. The more quickly and longer they spoke, and those who smiled, gestured, and complimented others got the better ratings.

Those equally qualified for the job (a variety of positions were used), but who were more modest about their achievements scored lower.

“This shows that what is getting (narcissists) the win is the delivery,” Harms said. “These results show just how hard it is to effectively interview, and how fallible we can be when making interview judgments. We don’t necessarily want to hire narcissists, but might end up doing so because they come off as being self-confident and capable.”

Dr. John Sullivan made the same point in an ERE article a few months ago, in which he detailed “The Top 50 Most Common Interview Problems.” On his list was this:

Non-job related factors influence decisions – numerous subjective factors like body language, accent, height, handshake, dress, and coming late may distract from a focus on the answers provided.

Since narcissists almost instinctively master these factors, others less skilled can suffer by comparison, another point Sullivan makes in his article. Especially when working with an employer who is particularly concerned about “fit,” you want to avoid sending them a narcissist, no matter how attractive.

That’s not to suggest narcissists have no place in the office. On the contrary, narcissistic personalities do very well in leadership roles, as Dr. Michael Maccoby details in his book, Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails. Unless your JO is for a CEO, Director or change master, watch out for signs of extreme narcissism.

One technique is to ask about empathy, as suggested by Dianne Crampton. Count the use of the “I” word, recommends doctoral student Kathy Schnure, in an article for the Institute of Industrial Engineers. Check references of references; not just those the candidate gave you. Finally, there are also assessment tests that can provide even more insight.

You may not be obligated to provide all that, and it may be going above and beyond. But if you save even one fee, you may be glad you went that extra step.

Image: Ambro /

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