Narcissistic boss: why leaders often overestimate themselves


“I know that I know nothing”: With this statement, the Greek philosopher Socrates went down in history. His sentence represents something like the epitome of wisdom. And that even though Socrates simply admits in it that he simply has no idea about most things.

But that is exactly what requires Self-knowledge and cleverness. “In order to be able to estimate what I do not understand, I need broad and in-depth knowledge”, says Astrid Schütz. She is a personality professor at the University of Bamberg, one of her main research areas is the human image of oneself and others. If you think about what Schütz is saying, it means: Incompetent people often lack the necessary knowledge to recognize what they are Not can and know. Therefore, they tend to overestimate themselves – and deny other, really competent people their abilities.

Narcissists are more likely to end up in leadership positions than others

The first research results came from the two US psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The phenomenon was named after them and is known today as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”. The study, which the two researchers published in 2007, is entitled: “Why the Unskilled are Unaware”, ie: “Why the untalented are not aware of their incompetence”.

Have no idea, but consider yourself the greatest or the greatest: When you hear that, do you have to think about your boss immediately? Perhaps that is not unjustified. Because leadership positions often attract people who tend to inflate themselves. Narcissists are particularly prone to this, says Astrid Schütz.

Astrid Schütz is a professor for personality psychology.

Astrid Schütz is a professor for personality psychology.

David Ebener

“There are initial findings that suggest that narcissists are more likely than others to end up in management positions,” says the psychologist. “Because narcissism is related to the pursuit of power, to the perception of being ‘better’ than others and to the fact that narcissists often impress at first sight.” Unfortunately, she says, narcissists are also worse managers. American psychologists were also able to show this in a study. Much of what is required of bosses today is difficult for narcissists, explains Schütz: for example, to muster empathy for their employees; or to discuss things with your team at eye level.

Incidentally, overconfidence is often accompanied by another phenomenon that Astrid Schütz is currently researching. It’s called “Illusion of explanatory depth” (“The illusion of depth of explanation”). “If I asked, ‘Do you know how a refrigerator works?’, Most people would probably say, ‘Yeah, sure!'” She explains. “Because they use their refrigerator every day and because they have a rough idea of ​​how it works.” However, says Schütz, most of us have no idea of ​​the complex process behind it. So we often think we understand something – but this understanding is superficial.

Just as some people are convinced that they know how a refrigerator works, many managers are convinced that they know in detail what their employees do throughout the day. “We assume that power fosters such illusions and overconfidence,” explains Schütz. “As soon as someone is in a management position, he or she runs the risk of thinking: ‘It’s clear what my team has to do! It’s not that difficult! ”

This is what managers say in particular who, in their overconfidence, have lost sight of how complex the tasks of their employees actually are. “Many of these bosses really think that they are their best employees themselves – and have difficulties delegating,” says Astrid Schütz.

Such managers have a negative effect on team motivation. “It is extremely frustrating for employees when the manager keeps pushing, checking everything and thinking they know better,” says Astrid Schütz. “That is a problematic understanding of leadership.”

Give more feedback, but do it right

Incidentally, one reason why managers misjudge themselves is also in their environment: Many of them have a feedback problem. “Managers generally get very little authentic feedback,” says Astrid Schütz. She noticed this again and again, especially when giving coaching in companies. “Colleagues are often competitors and have their own interests,” says Schütz. “And team members who under of the manager, they often give fine feedback because they don’t dare to criticize them. ” The result of this culture are often perplexed executives who ask themselves: “Funny – why are so many leaving?”

So give feedback more often – but correctly. That means: do not switch to attack at first. A narcissistic, self-overestimating executive will react to this with a protective reflex, says Astrid Schütz. “We all tend to protect ourselves,” she says. “Nobody wants to think they’re stupid or incompetent.”

A good manager knows the limits of their competence

Better try “leadership from below”. “Employees can definitely influence their superiors,” says Astrid Schütz. It’s best to try to understand your leader’s goals – and then argue with them. “Assuming that the boss really wants to shine with what a brilliant, productive department he leads,” explains Astrid Schütz. “Then you should take it up as an employee and say: ‘I have an idea how our department could get even better.’” You could also argue that satisfied employees work more productively.

By the way, you will also notice that you are dealing with a really good manager when – just like Socrates – she knows and admits the limits of her own competence. “Good managers accept that their team members are more competent in certain areas than they are,” says Astrid Schütz. Above all, a good manager has to see the big picture, hold the team together, communicate goals and motivate them. Know and be able to do everything? She doesn’t have to.

This article was published by in June 2020. It has now been reviewed and updated.


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