Tuesday, May 1, 2018

A narcissist Generation

Picture from Canva

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.

Giambatista, R. C., & Hoover, J. D. (2018). Narcissism and teamwork skill acquisition in management education. The Psychologist-Manager Journal, doi:10.1037/mgr0000064


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.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The costs of camouflaging autism

Illustration by Alessandra Genualdo 

 Many girls hide their autism, sometimes evading diagnosis 
well into adulthood. These efforts can help women 
on the spectrum socially and professionally, 
but they can also do serious harm.

Except for her family and closest friends, no one in Jennifer’s various circles knows that she is on the spectrum. Jennifer was not diagnosed with autism until she was 45 — and then only because she wanted confirmation of what she had figured out for herself over the previous decade. Most of her life, she says, she evaded a diagnosis by forcing herself to stop doing things her parents and others found strange or unacceptable. (For privacy reasons, Jennifer asked that we not use her last name.)
Over several weeks of emailing back and forth, Jennifer confides in me some of the tricks she uses to mask her autism — for example, staring at the spot between someone’s eyes instead of into their eyes, which makes her uncomfortable. But when we speak for the first time over video chat one Friday afternoon in January, I cannot pick up on any of these ploys.
She confesses to being anxious. “I didn’t put on my interview face,” she says. But her nervousness, too, is hidden — at least until she tells me that she is tapping her foot off camera and biting down on the chewing gum in her mouth. The only possible ‘tell’ I notice is that she gathers up hanks of her shoulder-length brown hair, pulls them back from her face and then lets them drop — over and over again.
In the course of more than an hour, Jennifer, a 48-year-old writer, describes the intense social and communication difficulties she experiences almost daily. She can express herself easily in writing, she says, but becomes disoriented during face-to-face communication. “The immediacy of the interaction messes with my processing,” she says.
“Am I making any sense at all?” she suddenly bursts out. She is, but often fears she is not.
To compensate, Jennifer says she practices how to act. Before attending a birthday party with her son, for example, she prepares herself to be “on,” correcting her posture and habitual fidgeting. She demonstrates for me how she sits up straight and becomes still. Her face takes on a pleasant and engaged expression, one she might adopt during conversation with another parent. To keep a dialogue going, she might drop in a few well-rehearsed catchphrases, such as “good grief” or “go big or go home.” “I feel if I do the nods, they won’t feel I’m uninterested,” she says.
Over the past few years, scientists have discovered that, like Jennifer, many women on the spectrum ‘camouflage’ the signs of their autism. This masking may explain at least in part why three to four times as many boys as girls are diagnosed with the condition. It might also account for why girls diagnosed young tend to show severe traits, and highly intelligent girls are often diagnosed late. (Men on the spectrum also camouflage, researchers have found, but not as commonly as women.)
Nearly everyone makes small adjustments to fit in better or conform to social norms, but camouflaging calls for constant and elaborate effort. It can help women with autism maintain their relationships and careers, but those gains often come at a heavy cost, including physical exhaustion and extreme anxiety.
Camouflaging is often about a desperate and sometimes subconscious survival battle,” says Kajsa Igelstr√∂m, assistant professor of neuroscience at Link√∂ping University in Sweden. “And this is an important point, I think — that camouflaging often develops as a natural adaptation strategy to navigate reality,” she says. “For many women, it’s not until they get properly diagnosed, recognized and accepted that they can fully map out who they are.”
Even so, not all women who camouflage say they would have wanted to know about their autism earlier — and researchers acknowledge that the issue is fraught with complexities. Receiving a formal diagnosis often helps women understand themselves better and tap greater support, but some women say it comes with its own burdens, such as a stigmatizing label and lower expectations for achievement.