Real-life Gilderoy Lockharts: Narcissistic professors, their students, and bullying at work

Kenneth Branagh as Prof. Gilderoy Lockhart from the Harry Potter series

Prof. Gilderoy Lockhart (actor Kenneth Branagh) from the Harry Potter series

I’m a bit of a latecomer to this ball, but I’ve just started reading the Harry Potter series. I’m deep into the second book, and I’ve already developed a humorous distaste for Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, a preening, lying, self-promoting narcissist of an instructor at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Young Harry’s dislike of him is laugh out loud funny! Author J.K. Rowling has freely admitted that Lockhart is the only Hogwarts character “deliberately based on a real person.”

While the pompous Lockhart makes for some good chuckles in the Harry Potter world, the real-life impact of narcissistic instructors on their students may be no laughing matter. In fact, a new study suggests a troubling connection to students’ academic performance. A research team from Appalachian State University led by Prof. James Westerman conducted a study of professors and undergraduate students from a university business school, examining the potential impact of narcissistic faculty members on more and less narcissistic students. Here’s an abstract of their findings, published in full in the International Journal of Management Education (July 2016):

Results indicated that narcissism congruence was significantly related to a student’s final grade in the class such that less congruence was associated with lower course grades and that this negative association was partially mediated by perceived professor status and perceived class difficulty. Particularly concerning was the finding that more narcissistic faculty were associated with detrimental outcomes for less narcissistic students. Considering the well-documented and profoundly negative implications of narcissism for workplace environments, this finding suggests a need for future research on the impact of narcissistic faculty on business students and on successful intervention strategies.

Colleen Flaherty, writing about the study for Inside Higher Ed, helps to translate:

Much has been written about the effects of toxic leaders in business, but a new study suggests that toxic business professors — specifically narcissists — wreak havoc in the classroom, at least for their more modest students. More narcissistic students, meanwhile, may benefit from having similarly self-obsessed instructors.

Relationship to workplace bullying

Narcissism has long been associated with workplace bullying behaviors. The Appalachian State study now brings the narcissistic personality traits of certain professional school faculty members into the mix.

In a 2012 blog piece, “Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying,” I suggested that “that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine.” I further explained:

You start with ambitious young people who (1) are used to being heralded as academic stars; (2) do not have a lot of life experience; and (3) tend to be driven, Type A achievers. You then put them in high-pressured educational environments that emphasize technical knowledge and skills and a lot of “left-brain” logical thinking. These degree programs don’t place a lot of emphasis on interpersonal skills and the development of emotional intelligence.

You then unleash them unto the world of work. Uh oh.

What I didn’t sufficiently build into that thesis was the potential impact of faculty members as role models and mentors. In addition to providing instruction, professors model attitudes and behaviors for their students. Although I am unaware of any large-scale studies of professorial personality profiles, I would bet a fair amount of money that narcissistic traits appear frequently in law, business, and medical school faculties, who happen to train leaders in vocational areas frequently associated with workplace bullying.

Combined with the findings of the Appalachian State study, this suggests that such schooling may well empower the most narcissistic students and discourage the more modest ones. Might this translate into more promotions and power for the former group ten or twenty years down the line? Uh oh, indeed!

2 responses

  1. Yes, there are some incredibly unpleasant and inept instructors at Hogwarts, including the sarcastic and bullying Snape, who JKR considers a good guy in the end, just because he had a crush on Harry’s mum.

  2. I know of two nursing students who have filed lawsuits that where dismissed from nursing school for raising legitimate concerns. Perhaps, they suffered at the hands of such professors. I think, in addition to destroying the prospective career of the student who questioned, it had a chilling effect on those who witnessed the consequences of questioning a narcissistic professor. Perhaps a peak at the culture of manufacturing a workforce that can be easily dominated or manipulated. In nursing, only ten per cent or less resist this subjugation.

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