Suspicious man in dark suit and glasses

The setting

Lockdown is over. You’re about to pitch to a room full of prospective investors about your incredible new project. In your head, you are that wunderkind they’ve been waiting for. Your project is a world-beater make no mistake. They just have to know that. All of them! You deserve this. This is your shot. You dowse your face in water one last time, give yourself a hearty slap on both cheeks then let out a guttural howl just to release any lingering errant tension. The squeaking of that loo dispenser in the middle cubicle and whooping cough suddenly stop. You observe the slow inward retreat of somebody’s toes under the cubicle door through the mirror. But you have no time for distractions today, it’s game time.

You have three pills. Each one will tap into a different but necessary cerebral frame of mind for today. You can emit the dastardliness of psychopathy, narcissism or Machiavellianism – but only one. Each will come with its own personal short-term drawbacks but these are traits you need but currently don’t possess, and this moment could change the course of your life forever. 

You remember Christian Bale playing Patrick Bateman once – he was always dressed in sharp suits and seemed quite persuasive – you remember that – and quite successful too – so you suggest there is an element of psychopathic agency that may be necessary in the cut and thrust of boardroom battles? You tentatively go with that. 

Anyway, you don’t get the funding and they think the howling and sweating was a bit much. End of story.

Do any of these traits actually give you an advantage?

Dr Francesca Di Pietro, Assistant Professor in Business Strategy at Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, thinks so. She recently authored the unlikely (but very real) report ‘Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy: How Do Displayed Entrepreneurs’ Personality Dark Traits Influence Crowdfunding Success‘.

The study examined 338 equity-crowdfunding campaigns conducted on the two main crowdfunding platforms in the UK and evaluated the impact of each of the ‘dark triad’ personality complexes against crowdfunding success.

The Dark Triad

The ‘dark triad’ comprises the three aforementioned personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Narcissism is characterised by grandiosity, egotism and a lack of empathy. Machiavellianism is behaviour characterised by manipulation, exploitation, a lack of morality and self-interest. And psychopathy is characterised by continuing antisocial behaviour, impulsiveness, selfishness and remorselessness.

Di Pietro looked at the impact of these traits on an entrepreneurs’ ability to successfully obtain ‘equity crowdfunding’ (where lots of investors from the general public invest in a company together in return for shares).

Machiavellianism

The study revealed that Machiavellianism in crowdfunding campaign pitches had no real material effect on funding success. Well, there is only so much skullduggery and cunning an entrepreneur can exhibit on a stage or a Zoom call that features only themselves. And arguing with yourself would probably raise a few other concerns. 

Psychopathy

Entrepreneurs who display traits of psychopathy lower their chances of securing investment. Apparently there is something inherently risky about a founder with a lack of inhibition or the guiding light of potential remorse.

Narcissism

But entrepreneurs that displayed the right level of narcissism were the real winners. Entrepreneurs with the right level of narcissism were more likely to secure crowdfunding investment Di Pietro’s research found. But the narcissism couldn’t be too high or too low. Entrepreneurs who exhibited either extremely low or extremely high levels of narcissism secured less investment than those who demonstrated a medium degree of narcissistic tendency.

But why? 

Dr Francesca Di Pietro explains:

“Narcissists attract investment and gain support using two mechanisms: a persuasive effect, and a commitment effect. Narcissists employ rhetoric to persuade, influence and mobilise others, and often do so in a spontaneous and encouraging manner. Similarly, they demonstrate commitment and work hard to reach their goals, which is displayed in their expressions and is easily understood by investors.

However, in both cases, these effects reach a turning point where, if narcissism levels are too high, they can actively discourage investment, whether that be through dishonest behaviour and unreliability when trying to be too persuasive, or even rude and aggressive due to being excessively committed”.

Know how to play the game

So there you have it. You have to learn to harness your inner narcissist. Too much and you turn into disgraced WeWork founder and self-proclaimed messiah Adam Neumann, or Elizabeth Holmes, founder of bogus unicorn Theranos. Too little and they’ll never believe you have what it takes to rally the troops or inspire future investors. 

Be like David Beckham. You’re skilled, you know you’re good and you know the value you bring. You know your brand, you’re a leader of men and women and an inspiration to children. You run UNICEF campaigns and occasionally complain that you still haven’t received your knighthood, but you never, ever say that out loud or commit such thoughts to paper. Only a failed Machiavellian would do that. It’s time to harness your mid-tempo narcissist and get them to show you the money! 

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