Personality Tests and Narcissism

This post discussed one particular personality trait - Narcissism. It is quite a topical one having been mentioned on blogs, news etc. However we also look at the wider application of tests and whether they are useful or not within recruitment.
There have been some interesting articles on the blogosphere recently regarding some of the more individual personality traits and also a good post in the NZ Herald a couple of days ago which encouraged me to finally write this (have put the link at the end).

As previous posts will have evidenced I am somewhat skeptical of the value of personality profiling despite working in this crazy profession of recruitment. Vendors of the tests point to research over how reliable the classifications are, however others point out that there is little evidence that they reliably predict performance. For me, I had a long career in sales and was a Sales Manager/Director for a fair while, including stints at some major organisations. My experience, and what was clearly evident from the companies I worked at, showed that personality tests were not good at predicting sales performance. I remember one multinational that put me through a full week of residential training round using multiple tests, both having them done to me and how to understand their use with staff. Whilst some tests seemed to be able to categorise - sounds good so far... the categorisations did not seem to translate into predicting performance either at an individual or team mix basis. For example, instinct suggests that top sales people would be people orientated and on the extravert side. The tests look for these traits and at a basic level we were encouraged to look for them in staff. However a fair number of the sales elite, i.e. the regular top performers that I saw, were neither particularly people orientated nor extravert. Given everyone was tested there seemed little in the way of a pattern to help you pick another top performer at interview. So much for the tests...

Having declared my hand that I don’t particularly believe current testing for personality traits has much to offer in recruitment I am now going to outline a particular personality trait that I believe can really affect on job performance. One thing that you become very aware of when you have to recruit your own people is the mismatch you can some times have between candidates who seem to have all the chat at interview and your experience of them on the actual job. The trait I am particularly talking about is narcissism and seems quite topical currently within the profession.

Defn – Narcissism is the personality trait of egotism, vanity, conceit, or simple selfishness. There is lots of research etc and you can see loads on the internet. Basically it seems there are a fair few narcissists around (anywhere between 5-15% they say).

In recruiting, narcissists fall into the group who promise lots, are very confident and have a very well developed sense of their own self-worth. In essence they otherwise interview very well, they are articulate, engaging and tend to be well prepared. So far seems like a recruiters dream. However there is also fair amount of evidence to suggest that their delivery is likely to be sub optimal and may be positively harmful.

Narcissists at their best can be; engaging, inspirational, exciting, transformational and certain. However they also tend to be poor at working with others, are overtly political (and not in a good way), are empire builders, manage up (not down or across) and worst of all can cause considerable carnage within an organisation in progressing their own agendas. Narcissists are not capable of putting the organisations needs before his/her own needs. In a founder/CEO you might argue that the positives may outweigh but in general they are for most organisational situations really bad news.

Here are a few pointers that may help you identify them:
  • The rules don't apply to them...?!
  • If they can cheat and get away with it they will.
  • Mistakes are never their fault.
    • They lack empathy. When you talk to them you may get the feeling they are not interested in how you are.
  • They have a considerable sense of self-importance. Coupled with the lack of empathy this means that they may often interrupt.
  • They feel they are too important to do the day-to-day tasks..?!
  • They are in one sense great delegators - they want others to do the work - but they will then end up micro-managing.
  • Listen for the constant use of "I", "me" and "my" when they talk. After all it is all about them.
  • They will talk about their ‘considerable’ achievements but will prove wary about disclosing inner details such as memories and dreams.

Having said up front that I don’t see much benefit in the psychological tests that proliferate these days for recruiting - it would be great is there was one that could weed out a trait like narcissism. I remember in the 1990’s going through my first Myres Briggs testing as a manager (I was an INTJ by the way if that means anything to you). The promise was that we would be able to identify the personality traits of our employees and better understand them with a view to getting better performance out of them. Within a couple of years however I realised that systems like Myres Briggs, OPQ and others would have been much more useful if they had included scales that could reliably predict for; sociopath, sadist, liar, asshole and narcissist...Winking Now those are traits you really want to be able to quickly identify.

So how to protect yourself and your organisation from hiring such people? We are great believers in structured competence based interviewing (aka Behavioural Competence Based Interviewing) and putting plenty of structure and criteria into your requirements BEFORE you start hiring. However, sadly narcissist candidates tend to do quite well from competency based interviewing unless care is taken. They are after all, likely to be very well prepared and have many stories round their considerable ‘achievements’. Sadly they dont show up well under this model unless care is taken. Getting them off balance with more off the wall type questions can help. Questions they are unlikely to have prepared responses for can help you look for clues. Questions that are more about them and not their achievements may give you a reaction that rings warning bells.

From a HR point of view these candidates may well get the job. They will perform at interview - which on the face of it sounds good. However they are just the sorts of candidates that the manager who ends up working with them will hate you for.

Considering personality traits and testing for them as a whole; In my view the usefulness of such tests are at best limited. The categories will likely not be particularly useful for recruiting purposes and you should carefully consider their reliability e.g. I have done a lot with sales people and I have not seen the tests prove useful there. In interviewing you also need to take care. Particularly with a trait like narcissism. Like tests, interviews can also be gamed. Ensure you are on guard and your models are flexible and comprehensive enough to look for this and what may be other undesirable traits.

See this link if you are not yet convinced: NZ Herald link