Are MBA Students Narcissistic?

By - Nov 17, 09:45 AM Comments [0]

According to a Financial Times article, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.” In “The narcissistic world of the MBA student,” Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of Power: Why Some People Have it and Other’s Don’t, elaborates on the reasons why MBA students show “a remarkable sense of entitlement, a reluctance to face honest feedback and the consequences of one’s actions, and an unwillingness to acknowledge and engage in the competition that characterizes organizational life.”

One culprit: college grade inflation. Students are demanding self-affirmation, so much so that they will eschew “any competitive situation that might threaten self-esteem.” The effects are contagious; there are more straight-A students now than ever. Students are entitled to their A’s, and don’t even need to work very hard to get them. Grade non-disclosure to potential employers further “mitigates against academic competition and…performance pressures.”

Pfeffer continues to explain that even if MBA students weren’t already narcissistic due to their college educations, they would quickly become so just after b-school orientation. During their first assembly in business school (and most likely, throughout the next two years), students are exposed to praise and are awarded with the ranks of high status. The author compares this to the highly selected students at military academies who “are given lowly titles and informed they need to earn their acceptance and status.”

Business school graduates, he explains, are now more likely to quit upon criticism from an employer than to reflect on how to improve their performance.

Some solutions:

  • Change the tone of that orientation speech from singing praises to emphasizing the responsibilities of first students, and then businesspeople.
  • Establish firm consequences for cheating, thus imparting that there are consequences for all actions.
  • Emphasize the principles of power. Pfeffer lays out clear principles at the opening to his article, and they are:

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.

The earlier parts of this post summarize Pfeffer’s article, now for my thoughts: The “narcissism” as he calls it is in my opinion not so much characteristic of MBA students as of the millennial generation. Just last Friday my husband and I had dinner with a leading ophthalmologist and professor at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. He echoed Pfeffer’s complaints about the residents and fellows that he works with almost verbatim. Indeed, Ron Alsop writes in The Trophy Kids Grow Up, a book about millenials, “A strong sense of entitlement is one of the most striking characteristics of the millennial generation.”

Whether referred to as “narcissism,” “an inability to take criticism,” or “a strong sense of entitlement,” you don’t want to give off these vibes in your interactions with business schools. Show appreciation for anything and everything in your interactions with school representatives.  Listen to and evaluate criticism before you react to it. Attempt to view it as a means of self-improvement, or in Dr. Randy Pausch’s words, “Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care.” Don’t reject feedback immediately, just because it’s not what you want to hear.

Finally, I disagree with Dr. Pfeffer about an unwillingness to compete as being characteristic of MBAs or millenials. I haven’t seen that at all. Perhaps poor sportsmanship is more of an issue and an inability to lose gracefully is more at the heart of the matter.  My $.02

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