Humility is a trait that B-school admissions officers say they prize, though research suggests they sometimes choose candidates who are anything but humble. But why waste time with rounds of applicant interviews when officers apparently have what they need to detect an inflated ego up front? The telltale metric: an applicant’s signature.
That’s a logic path you could stumble down after reading new research from business professors at the University of Maryland and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
The professors used the size of a chief executive officer’s signature on annual Securities and Exchange Commission filings to measure CEO narcissism. They found that a large signature correlates with company over-investment and subsequently lower forecast revenue and sales growth.
“Narcissistic CEOs also deliver worse current performance,” they wrote. “Despite this negative performance relationship, more narcissistic CEOs enjoy higher compensation.”
The authors’ measurement of CEO narcissism was based on psychological research from the 1970s demonstrating that “people with greater self-esteem have larger signatures” and that a signature “can be used as an implicit measure of ego and dominance.”
Using these justifications, they analyzed the signatures of 605 CEOs to draw their conclusions.
What does this have to do with B-school? If an executive could be pegged as a narcissist by a signature pattern, it would be relatively simple to screen narcissists out of the B-school applicant pool. But that’s a big if. Jim Westerman, a management professor at Appalachian State University whose own research suggests that narcissism in business school is growing, says it’s unclear from the study which personality traits are revealed by an outsized signature. Narcissism might be indicated, or it could be something related—and positive—such as self-esteem or extroversion.
“A bigger signature might have squat to do with narcissism,” Westerman said. “What does large handwriting truly indicate? That’s what you’re screening out. It’s not narcissism.”