Boasting Is the New Black

According to new studies, having a touch of “healthy” narcissism could catapult you up the career ladder.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
According to new studies, having a touch of “healthy” narcissism could catapult you up the career ladder.
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A s far as workplace misdemeanours go, narcissism is up there with the worst professional crimes you can commit. Who hasn’t rolled their eyes when a self-absorbed colleague starts boasting incessantly about her achievements?

But according to a new article in New Scientist, “healthy” narcissism is helpful rather than harmful: a character trait that is positive, and that could help you ascend the career ladder faster than your more modest colleagues.

While at one end of the spectrum – the unhealthy end – it involves enormously inflated egos, manipulative character traits and a lack of empathy for others; a certain level of narcissism, or self-love, is needed in the workplace so we don’t get swept up in office politics or worrying what others think of us.  

A study by University of British Columbia in 2013 show that narcissists are not only far more successful at job interviews, but also better at negotiating higher prices for their work.

Maybe the modest, self- deprecating ways we’re used to in Singapore could actually be holding us back: perhaps a little bit of self-absorption now and then wouldn’t go amiss. “A healthy level of narcissism can be a good thing,” says career expert Salma Shah. “People with ‘good’ narcissism draw others to them. In the office, a healthy dose of self-promotion will get you noticed and rewarded.”

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While inordinately conceited people are irritating to others, being too modest can actually hinder our professional growth, says Salma. “People who come across as self-absorbed and overly confident to the point of arrogance are a turn-off,” she says. “However, if you’re always putting yourself down, it makes others unsure of what you’re saying.”
So what is the difference between “healthy” narcissism and simple confidence? “A narcissist is a very selfabsorbed, self-centred person who acts with their own agenda in mind,” says behavioural expert Suzie Parkus. “A confident person is assertive when it comes to going from A to B, but less self-centred and self-driven than a narcissist.”
Whether we use the powers of confidence or the powers of persuasion, how do we go about changing what we’ve always been taught: that humility is best?
According to Professor Kenneth Paul Tan, Vice Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, while Who knew that talking yourself up could land you that dream job? Singaporeans are known for being modest and low-key, times are changing and we are learning to sing our own praises when necessary.
“Narcissism has such a negative meaning in ordinary language, particularly when making observations about today’s generation of millennials and behaviours in social media,” says Kenneth. “It is difficult to find anything attractive in the pathological narcissist whom we think of as self-absorbed, attention- and gratification-seeking, entitled, and lacking in empathy... This is especially true among Singaporeans who have a reputation for being somewhat reticent people. We refrain from expressing ourselves openly in the fear that we might be exposed for our mistakes and imperfections,” he adds.
However, Kenneth explains that this, ironically, can also be a form of narcissism, one where we’re terrified to speak out in case we’re proven wrong. So once we’ve decided to dispense with the “false modesty”, how do we overcome a lifetime of not showing off to adopt “healthy narcissism”? And how does one boast about their achievements or say “I’m great” without coming across as arrogant, egotistical and irritating?
Rather than diving in headfirst, grabbing your boss and plunging into a monologue about all your recent triumphs, Salma recommends easing into “healthy” narcissism slowly, by giving people examples of positive things you’ve done, telling it as a story or an anecdote.
“Make it interesting from the listener’s perspective. If you can add a bit of humour, even better,” she says. “You should only talk about your successes if it’s appropriate and relevant to what’s being discussed. No one ever gets away with manipulating the conversation just so you can talk about yourself.”
It might be blush-inducing even thinking about gloating to your colleagues next time you step into work, but if science is to be believed, it could be your ticket to a speedier promotion. 
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Greek mythology tells the tale of Narcissus, the original narcissist, who was said to be extremely beautiful. After falling in love with his own reflection, Narcissus gazed at himself in the waters of a spring until he died; the narcissus flower sprang up in his place.

1914 Sigmund Freud completed On Narcissism, an essay that explored self-love in infants, and which set the scene for the study of narcissism in the 20 th century.

2002 Sandy Hotchkiss’ book Why Is It Always About You? identified the “Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism” – Shamelessness, Magical Thinking, Arrogance, Envy, Entitlement, Exploitation, and Bad Boundaries – as well as their origins.

21 st Century Studies have found links between excessive social media use and narcissism, leading to worries that our society is more narcissistic than any before us.