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The Rising Tide of Narcissism: What B-Schools Can Do

Business schools have a problem. The members of the millennial generation (born from 1977 to 2000) are populating our B-schools, and an increasing number of them are showing a distinct tendency toward narcissism. Why should we care? Narcissism is toxic for organizations, and it is undermining the credibility and reputation of business schools.

As students, narcissists exploit others, are arrogant and haughty, and unable to empathize with others. They are poor team players, at a time when employers are demanding enhanced team skills. Narcissists blame others for failures, take undeserved credit for success, are hypersensitive to negative feedback, and show an exaggerated sense of entitlement. Paradoxically, narcissists may actually perform better than non-narcissists in the classroom because it is a temporary work environment. Narcissists are often very likable in the short term, performing well in competitive settings and taking initiative as emergent leaders (although their performance as leaders can be disastrous for organizations).

For employers, these business students are likely to become narcissistic managers who create toxic work environments. Narcissists believe they are "above the rules," resulting in risky and unethical decision-making. (It has been suggested that the current financial crisis was caused by narcissistic B-school graduates.) Their hypersensitivity to criticism is likely to be a problem for supervisors as well, particularly in performance assessment. Business schools clearly cannot just turn a blind eye and pass these people through.

The bad news is that long-term studies, including our own, show that narcissism is on the increase, and that it is more prevalent among business students. The good news is that although personality is difficult to change, B-schools can take action to distinctly improve the situation.

Remedies for Narcissism

Remedies for narcissism in B-schools can be implemented at two levels, by administrators and by instructors. It will require effort and focus on the part of both to address this issue.

First, B-schools should screen out narcissistic applicants. One way to do this is to give applicants a personality test like the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. An equally viable option is to interview applicants (bearing in mind, of course, that narcissists tend to be likable in the short term). Medical schools several decades ago saw a need to bring in students with better interpersonal skills and used the interview method to help toward that goal. Many B-schools currently have admissions interviews, but they're not used to screen out narcissists—if anything, narcissists tend to perform well. The elimination of narcissistic B-school candidates can begin there.

The second remedy for B-school narcissism involves reining in grade inflation. One of the many deleterious effects of grade inflation is that it reinforces a narcissist's sense of entitlement. But grade inflation cannot be tackled without doing something about the way the school measures teaching performance, which now relies heavily on student evaluations—a customer satisfaction measure. Just as evaluation of performance in companies has moved more toward 360-degree feedback in the last 10 years, so additional measures such as teaching portfolios and peer observation should be incorporated. A more accurate approach to faculty performance assessment may free faculty to stand their ground on grades when challenged by narcissists, without fear of a bad student evaluation destroying their chances for tenure.

An additional step is to require internships or study-abroad experiences, or both. Internships help ease students' transition to the working world and are especially valuable for students who have not held a career-level job. Narcissists' expectations for career success—in terms of how quickly and easily they will find a job and move up in a company—are inflated relative to their peers. When such unrealistic expectations are deflated by reality, what we know about narcissism suggests that anger, depression, and anxiety are likely outcomes. Having students complete internships can provide a form of realistic job preview that might soften the blow. Study-abroad experiences, especially those of the semester-long variety, can reduce the sense of parochialism that goes along with self-absorption and, if done in a less developed country, may increase the sense of empathy that narcissists sorely lack.

Empathy might also be increased by getting students involved in service learning projects, something individual faculty members can accomplish. We found that students who participated in those projects often said it changed their perspective, making them more sensitive to the plight of the less fortunate. Role playing can be used as it has been in many firms for sensitivity training, which can help change attitudes about sexual harassment (narcissists' sense of entitlement can lead them to make unwanted advances). Formal, structured feedback from peers in the classroom can also help expose narcissistic behaviors that faculty members are unable to observe. And we believe this is critical—smaller class sizes also make it distinctly easier for faculty to spot problems and intervene.

Society provides a "license" for business to operate. B-schools need to get back to graduating future employees who consider multiple stakeholders' interests, not just their own.

Joe Daly and Jim Westerman are management professors at Appalachian State University who have studied narcissism in business school students. Daly has taught there and at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University for a total of 23 years. Westerman has taught MBA and undergraduate students at Wake Forest University and the University of Nevada at Reno.

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