Soapbox

November 7, 2010 7:43 pm

The narcissistic world of the MBA student

Current students are characterised by a sense of entitlement and a reluctance to face feedback

Here are some fundamental principles of power: a) hierarchy is ubiquitous and desired in task groups, which means there is invariably competition for the rewards that come from moving up the ladder; b) the ability to see the world through another’s point of view is a critical skill for being able to garner influence; c) success requires ambition, drive and the persistence and resilience to overcome setbacks and to work constantly on weaknesses.

Teaching these principles in business school is essential if we are to confront some issues bedevilling the current generation of business school students entering the workforce: a remarkable sense of entitlement, a reluctance to face honest feedback and the consequences of one’s actions, and an unwilling- ness to acknowledge and engage in the competition that characterises organisational life.

 
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A recent meta-analysis found that between 1982 and 2009 there was a dramatic increase in narcissistic personality traits among college students – in part characterised by an inability to take the perspective of others, a dependence on others for affirmation and valuing oneself regardless of real achievements while seeking constant praise.

Seeking self-affirmation can entail eschewing any competitive situation that might threaten self-esteem. Thus, in many US schools, rather than having one individual honoured, every straight-A student is a “valedictorian”.

Grade inflation in higher educational institutions is widespread. Some business schools use a forced curve to control the problem, but that is so unpopular with the students it is seldom openly discussed. Grade non-disclosure to potential employers, a policy that is sacrosanct with students, further mitigates against academic competition and for that matter, performance pressures.

Even if students didn’t arrive at the leading business schools already narcissistic, orientation activities would soon make them so. One of the first things they are told is how accomplished and wonderful they are. That’s not what happens to the highly-selected attendees at the military academies. They are given lowly titles and informed they need to earn their acceptance and status – just being admitted isn’t enough.

And the result of all of this coddling, according to some business school alumni? In the past, when employees were criticised for some mistake, they would reflect on how to do better and determine to take their game to the next level. Now, criticism is as likely to beget quitting as any efforts to improve.

The situation could be addressed as follows.

Change the typical admissions director speech at business school orientations from one of singing the students’ praises to, while acknowledging the accomplishment of their selection, emphasising the responsibilities that come with attending school and entering a profession that entails the stewardship of people’s lives.

Change the academic culture of business schools. Business school students cheat more than their counterparts in other disciplines because there are few consequences. Cheaters are unlikely to be reported and even if cheating is proved, sanctions are typically mild. Students must learn there are consequences for their actions. Strong sanctions against a few who violate rules of conduct, something military academies regularly impose, would set a different normative tone.

Business school students need to learn the principles of power. It is possible to teach them the importance of political skill to their success, have them practise understanding another’s perspective, instruct them on how to build and maintain social networks and, above all, have them learn from case studies and practise the principles of resilience and bouncing back from setbacks that are inevitable in any competitive arena.

My sense is that business school employers and alumni would embrace these changes and then might just begin to affect the pernicious culture of entitlement and narcissism.

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the author of ‘Power: Why Some People Have it and Other’s Don’t’ (HarperBusiness, Sep 2010) and professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business

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