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The 21st century has ushered in a new era of work, in which more and more people are leaving or doing without the traditional workforce and instead opting for self-employment. This trend in career paths for the self-employed has led to the development of incubator and accelerator programs designed to support startups, shape emerging industries such as the recent coworking space movement, and prompt business schools to develop entire curricula tailored to the interested party start your own company.
What explains this increased interest in self-employment? Perhaps this is due to the relatively young development of several very successful entrepreneurs – such as Jeff Bezos, Susan Wojcicki, and Mark Zuckerberg – who are considered the epitome of success. Or maybe it is because of changes in the preferences and values of the youngest generation cohorts, or because of technological changes in the nature of the work, that make it easier than ever to pursue self-employment as a viable career path. Most likely it is a little bit of each of these.
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But there are other explanations as to why individuals choose to start their own business. For example, a more recent area of study has looked at the role mental disorders play in making the decision to become self-employed. While several mental health disorders have been speculated over the years, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in particular is one that is often viewed as a potential factor in self-employment decisions. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the NPD represents “an ubiquitous pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning in early adulthood and in a variety of contexts present. "
While research suggests that NPD can affect an individual's ability to function optimally at work, many of the traits associated with it can actually lead to self-employment contexts. After all, starting your own business often requires considerable trust, risk tolerance, and the ability to articulate a compelling vision – qualities that highly narcissistic people tend to dwarf. My colleagues and I were interested in understanding the link between narcissism and self-employment, and we conducted a study recently published in the Journal of Business Research to shed light on this topic. Here are some major takeaways:
1. Narcissists are more likely to be self-employed than non-narcissists
Whether you are in a traditional employment environment, work in the gig economy, or have started your own business, the way you ended up in your current situation is likely to have been to some extent influenced by your perceived "fit" influenced in the environment. That said, if you are like most people, you have probably thought about whether you have the qualities or skills necessary to be successful in a particular career path or employment context, and whether the context is capable of To meet your specific needs and preferences. This is known in the organizational literature as the person-environment fit and can help explain one of the key findings of our study: Narcissists are more likely to be self-sufficient than their non-narcissistic colleagues.
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Narcissists are consumed with fantasies of grandiosity and often look for situations that can draw them attention and admiration from others. For narcissists, self-employment can be seen as a viable source of such a “narcissistic offer” as it increasingly offers the opportunity to “change the world” as an admirable and individualized career path and representation in the media. Not only is it likely that narcissists will find self-employment desirable, but because of their high levels of self-esteem, delusional superiority, and risk-taking tendencies, that they have the skills and abilities necessary to succeed in such contexts. This mixture of attraction and perceived aptitude for self-employment means that narcissistic people often avoid traditional forms of employment and instead choose self-employment.
2. Narcissistic men are more likely to be self-employed than narcissistic women
While it may be somewhat obvious that narcissistic individuals are more likely to be self-sufficient than their non-narcissistic counterparts, the role that gender plays in this relationship is less intuitive. In particular, our results further show that narcissistic men are more likely to be self-sufficient than narcissistic women. What explains such gender differences?
Women are generally significantly underrepresented in terms of entrepreneurship and self-employment. It is estimated that women are often half as much entrepreneurial as men. One explanation for such notable gender differences in self-employment is that women often face social sanctions when successfully performing roles that are traditionally considered to be male-oriented. Interestingly, the negative social consequences that can plague women entrepreneurs also seem to explain important gender differences in the manifestation of narcissism. For example, research suggests that the agent expressions of narcissism (e.g., shows of confidence and risk behavior) are more likely to be subject to social sanctions when carried out by women than by men.
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What does this mean for the results of our study? Well, it is possible that narcissistic women who anticipate such social sanctions will be less likely than their male counterparts to experience the same benefits of self-employment and therefore choose a more traditional career path. While narcissistic men view self-employment as their path to fame and fortune, narcissistic women may see such career paths less as a conducive context in which to acquire the narcissistic supply they crave.
3. Self-employed narcissists are no more successful than traditionally employed narcissists
Nowadays there is no shortage of business gurus and self-proclaimed influencers willing to highlight the benefits of self-confidence, optimism and maybe even a little self-love as essential characteristics of entrepreneurial success. Just believing that you have what it takes to be successful on your own when it may be necessary is probably not a sufficient requirement to succeed in the highly insecure and dynamic realm of self-employment. For example, the results of our study suggest that while narcissists believe they have what it takes to be successful in the context of self-employment, they are in fact not more successful (in terms of income levels) than narcissists employed in traditional work Settings. To be fair, narcissists have characteristics other than blind optimism and overconfidence that could affect their ability to be successful on their own. For example, they are prone to overly risky behavior and an escalation in engagement. These characteristics can lead them to ignore negative information and stick to their endeavors longer than optimal. They are also very exploitative and prone to aggression. These traits often lead to them being viewed tougher and less trustworthy by others over time.
The point is, while we can easily envision many entrepreneurs with narcissistic tendencies who have been hugely successful (e.g., Steve Jobs, Martha Stewart, Elon Musk), these are likely the exception rather than the rule. Narcissists, especially those suffering from their pathological expression, simply possess too many negative traits that can ultimately outweigh the positive ones.