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By Susan Krauss Whitbourne
You hear it all the time about the millennial generation, or those born between the late 1970s and 2000 —they’re just a bunch of entitled narcissists. Despite the fact that the “me” generation was first identified in the 1970s and referred to the Baby Boomers in Christopher Lasch’s book (The Culture of Narcissism), the millennials are regarded as being even more me-oriented than their parents.
It’s not clear where the narcissism label came from as applied to this entire generation, but the idea certainly has been reinforced in the popular press. The rise of Facebook, selfies, and other social media have certainly contributed to the narcissism attribution as well. Another theory is that millennials were overly pampered and revered as children by parents whose “me-ness” led them to focus on their offspring as reflections on themselves. In any case, the label is sticking and doesn’t show signs of going away.
New research on millennials in the workplace suggests that it is definitely time to drop this misnomer, and particularly, to stop lumping everyone in a single generation into one diagnostic category. University of Scranton’s Robert Giambatista and Texas Tech University’s J. Duane Hoover (2018) decided to challenge the popular wisdom about the millennials in terms of their ability to learn teamwork in the organizational setting. Skeptical of the view that all millennials have the same personalities, they believed that only those individuals high in narcissism would show teamwork problems due to their “dysfunctional and disruptive behaviors” (p. 3). The authors studied narcissism in the non-clinical sense; i.e. as a set of personality traits and not as a diagnosable disorder. In the workplace, people high in this trait should “generally act as self-serving individuals needing to succeed as an individual at all costs, perhaps even to the net costs to the team itself… (and) as unpopular bosses” (p. 4).
High-performing teams, the authors then explain, share a purpose and vision that goes beyond the needs of individuals on those teams. Members are held accountable to each other, and they put forth a collective effort to reach collective ends. They trust one another, meaning that they occasionally have to show their vulnerable sides. None of these qualities should be found, as the authors point out, in people high in narcissism. Furthermore, when they assess their abilities, people high in narcissism have a hard time being objective and deciding on where they need to show room for improvement. These are additional impediments to high performance on a work team.
Giambatista and Hoover tested the idea that people high in narcissism would be poor team players in an innovative study of master’s students taking a behaviorally-based class in organizational behavior (n= 168). The students completed the Narcissism Personality Inventory (NPI) early in the semester prior to embarking on the course. Its behavioral focus meant that students in the course took place in realistically-designed learning activities in which their ability to work on a team received constant assessment. It was their performance on the teamwork skill assessment that became the outcome variable in the study, with narcissism scores as predictors. Additionally, the authors developed a behavioral test of narcissism by comparing self-ratings of abilities with actual performance on one of the skill-based assessment exercises. People high in narcissism, as defined in this manner, should overconfidently rate themselves as better than they actually were.
The findings showed that people high in the entitlement and superiority components of narcissism in fact had higher levels of overconfidence and poorer teamwork skills and that their teamwork performance continued to be deficient over the course of the semester. The other components of the NPI scores had no relationship to teamwork or teamwork skill learning. Thus, the findings for narcissism as a whole were weaker than for the two specific components of entitlement and superiority. As the authors concluded, “individuals holding the ‘sky is falling’ anxieties about working with millennials and some individuals with narcissistic tendencies may be overly pessimistic” (p. 15). This suggests that even if the form of narcissism a person has is marked by high degrees of entitlement and superiority, these traits might also live in a personality as a whole that includes other redeeming qualities.
As Giambatista and Hoover suggest, it’s not particularly fun or easy to try to teach teamwork to people who think they’re better than everyone else and deserving of special treatment. These individuals may resist a skill-based approach that assumes they’re imperfect and have something they need to learn. Instead, for these individuals, it might be best to point out how the success of each worker benefits the team as a whole: “Learners who are narcissistic and also sports fans can probably relate to the many examples of professional athletes who have parlayed team success into huge financial gains… even though they were not the star players on their teams” (p. 17).
There are ways, then, to manage people who are high in these two components of narcissism, and to help them become better at cooperating and working toward shared goals. The authors have harsh words for those who engage in “conflating millennials with narcissism,” or assuming that “slightly higher levels of narcissism come with disastrous consequences.” They also point out that the “pernicious portrayal” of millennial narcissists “may contain no small amount of generational ‘old fogeyism’” (p. 17).
To sum up, if you’re one of those in the older generations who look with dismay and fear at your younger colleagues, friends, or family, the present findings suggest that you not give up on them or write them off as pathologically narcissistic. By all means, identify those whose behavior suggests their opinion of themselves is entirely too high and tailor your training methods accordingly. You don’t need to limit this approach to those born at the end of the 20th Century. Millennials aren’t the first generation to include people high in certain aspects of narcissism, and they certainly won’t be the last.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., ABPP, is a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Gerontology and Faculty Fellow in the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters and 16 books (many in multiple editions and translations), her most recent popular work is The Search for Fulfillment (January 2010, Ballantine Books). She also writes for the Huffington Post’s “Post 50” blog and is a frequent commentator on local, national, and international media outlets and has appeared on the Today Show, NBC Nightly News, Dateline, CNN, Olbermann, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, USA Today, and Time.com.