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From YouTube‘s Susan Wojcicki to Facebook‘s Sheryl Sandberg, through the years many bosses of the biggest companies have been women. 

Now, a study has shed light on the secret of their success – and it may come down to their ego.  

Researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark examined the personality traits of chief executives and found that a higher level of narcissism in women CEOs was associated with improved company performance.

The same effect, however, was not found for narcissism in male bosses. 

‘We find that narcissistic, female CEOs beat their male peers in terms of corporate performance,’ the researchers said. 

Why it pays to have a narcissistic boss: Companies run by women with a ‘bit of an ego’ are more successful (but the same doesn’t apply to men!), study finds

Through the years, many CEOs of the biggest companies have been women. Pictured: former YouTube CEO, Susan Wojcicki

A study may have shed light on the secret of their success - and it comes down to their ego. Pictured: former Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg

A study may have shed light on the secret of their success – and it comes down to their ego. Pictured: former Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg

The researchers suggested that narcissism may be performance-enhancing for female CEOs because they may be better able to ‘exploit the bright sides’ of the trait, ‘while moderating its dark side’.

That is, they may be able to use their narcissism to appear as an impressive leader while curbing the narcissistic tendency to exploit others. 

The study’s co-author, Dr Tom Aabo, explained that narcissism has three facets: grandiose exhibitionism – which comprises vanity, self-absorption and superiority; leadership/authority – the ‘bright side’ encompassing a desire to lead, an aspiration for power, and a belief in one’s power to influence; and exploitative/entitlement (E/E), the really dark side.

‘The E/E facet is the most disturbing facet as it is linked to aggression, counterproductive work behaviour, and a reluctance to forgive,’ said Dr Aabo.

‘The E/E facet is generally related to the ‘dark triad’ personality, including impulsive antisociality and Machiavellianism.

‘What is interesting in our case is that other studies have shown the E/E facet displays the largest gender difference.

‘Women tend to be more agreeable than men, and higher agreeableness is also the case when comparing female and male executives.’

Researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark examined the personality traits of chief executives and found that a higher level of narcissism in women CEOs was associated with improved company performance. Pictured: former CEO of Bumble, Whitney Wolfe Herd

Researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark examined the personality traits of chief executives and found that a higher level of narcissism in women CEOs was associated with improved company performance. Pictured: former CEO of Bumble, Whitney Wolfe Herd

The study design was not able to separate the three sides of narcissism in the individual participants but it’s likely that the ‘higher agreeableness of female CEOs’ created a ‘superior balance between the three facets of the traits, especially a less dominant E/E facet for a given degree of narcissism’, said Dr Aabo.

Social role expectations may also constrain the behaviour of female CEOs, he said, in that women are supposed to be more nurturing and warm.

‘Thus, while CEO narcissism has been linked to unethical and questionable behaviours, this is likely to be less severe in the case of narcissistic, female CEOs,’ he said.

And thirdly, women ‘exhibit higher rates than men of empathy-related evolutionary traits, which could further restrain the dark sides of narcissism,’ he said.

‘Evolutionary, when we were hunters and gatherers, women were looking after the family – especially children – and gathered fruits, etc., while men were hunters and warriors,’ he said.

‘Some recent evidence paints this picture as not so black and white, but women needed more empathy in their roles than men.

‘Psychology literature says that we are still born with a brain calibrated to our time as hunters and gatherers.’ 

For the study, the researchers studied the CEOs running 859 non-financial and non-utility companies in Standard & Poor’s (S&P) 1,500 stock market index between 2007 and 2020.

They analysed the CEOs’ language during four separate Q&A sessions of quarterly earnings conference calls spread across their tenure.

They focused on the leaders’ use of first-person singular pronouns, i.e. ‘I, me, my,’ versus first-person plural pronouns – we, us, our – as research has shown that people who are more narcissistic tend to use more first-person singular pronouns and fewer first-person plural pronouns.

They studied Q&A sessions rather than presentations as the former are ‘unscripted and more likely to reveal the true personality of the CEO’, they added. 

And they found that companies run by female CEOs who are 25 per cent more narcissistic than the average, female, CEO, were significantly more successful. 

Dr Aabo said: ‘If a woman is in the middle of the upper half of narcissism among female CEOs, she is associated with – and likely causes – a 13.9 per cent increase in profitability and a 13.5 per cent increase in valuation than an average woman chief executive.’ 

When comparing men and women, the researchers found that narcissistic, female CEOs are associated with a 10-20 per cent better corporate performance – 10 per cent better profitability and 20 per cent better valuation – than equally narcissistic, male CEOs.

The study is published in the journal Finance Research Letters.

WHAT IS QUEEN BEE SYNDROME?

Queen Bee syndrome was first defined by G.L. Staines, T.E. Jayaratne, and C. Tavris in 1973. 

It describes a woman in a position of authority who views or treats colleagues and subordinates more critically if they are female, according to psychologist Dr Audrey Nelson. 

In encompasses behaviours ranging from women disparaging typically feminine traits to being unsupportive of moves to address gender inequality.

The ultimate Queen Bee is a woman who makes it to the top of her profession, but refuses to help other women reach the same heights. 

This phenomenon has been documented by several studies. 

In one, scientists from the University of Toronto claimed that queen bee syndrome may be the reason that women find it more stressful to work for women managers.

No difference was found in stress levels for male workers under a female boss.

An alternate, though closely related, definition describes a queen bee as one who has succeeded in her career, but refuses to help other women do the same. 

Some researchers speculate that women may feel they had to claw their way to the top through many years of hard work and stress and expect other women to experience the same rigour.

To put it simply: they suffered, so should other women.

When strategy professors studied the top management of the Standard & Poor’s 1,500 companies over 20 years, they found what they thought supported this notion.

When one woman reached senior management, it was 51 per cent less likely a second woman would make it. 

On closer examination, however, the person blocking the second woman’s advancement wasn’t a Queen Bee; it was a male executive. 

When a woman was made chief executive, the opposite was true and woman had a better chance of joining senior management than when the chief executive was a man.



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