The pitfalls of the narcissistic NBA player

Why do star players sometimes hurt their team’s performance?

Last season, the Boston Celtics made the Eastern Conference Finals without two of their stars, Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving.

With Hayward and Irving returning this year, Boston looked like the team to beat.

However, they haven’t lived up to the hype: They’ll make the playoffs, but only as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. In fact, this past season, the team seemed to perform better when Irving wasn’t playing.

When explaining this phenomenon, analysts often point to a player’s inflated ego.

In Irving’s case, there have been rumblings about his narcissism – his jealousy, need to be the center of attention, tendency to blame others and poor leadership skills.

As a leadership researcher, I wondered if data might back up the assumption that bigger egos really can cause teams bigger problems.

Narcissism and performance

Narcissists tend to be entitled, arrogant, lack empathy and have an inflated sense of their own self-importance. You don’t have to be an expert to realize that this set of attributes is toxic, particularly for working with others. Yet there is little scholarly research examining how someone’s narcissism might affect a team’s ability to succeed.

The research that does exist concludes that an employee’s narcissism is unrelated to his or her job performance: Some are high performers, some are low performers, but there’s no consistent pattern. Because narcissism doesn’t appear to detract from individual performance, managers may decide that it’s okay to hire narcissists, as long as they’re talented enough.

In sports, we see this time and again. The best players get the most lucrative contracts, and there seems to be a long leash for narcissistic behavior, as long as the skills are there.

But research largely fails to take into account how narcissists might affect the performance of the team – which is what my co-authors and I set out to do.

Tweets as a window into personality

In our study, we looked at the performance of NBA teams during the 2013-2014 regular season.