Everybody’s got a dark side

There has been a lot of research on dark personality traits over almost a decade and many of these studies have focused on how they affect the workplace. The dark personality is the median between normal and clinical personalities allowing individuals to function without interference in their daily lives. Research in organizations by Jonason (2011) and others about the dark personality has focussed predominantly on three traits, i.e. Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy collectively known as the Dark Triad (DT) as seen in Paulus and Williams (2002).

In organizations, these subclinical traits are often measured with the Hogan Development Survey (HDS) which assesses 11 of these traits. When high, these subclinical traits might adversely affect an individual’s personal or work lives when they are stressed. Machiavellianism seems to align with Skeptical which is characterised by cynicism and distrust, narcissism with Bold which corresponds to excessive self-confidence and psychopathy with Mischievous on the HDS because they take risks and seek excitement (Spain, Harms, & Lebreton, 2013).

Leadership development and performance have been found to be related to the dark personality traits. Harms, Spain, and Hannah (2011) explored this, and found a negative relationship between DT and the development of leaders over extended periods of time. It highlights the link between personality and the growth of leaders, and the circumstances in which both positive and negative personality traits affect leadership development. Measurement of leadership effectiveness is usually done through bright personality traits like confidence, initiative, responsibility, curiosity, and achievement orientation. By understanding a leader’s dark personality traits, we may pre-empt what could derail employees and affect leadership and performance.

Douglas, Bore, and Manroe (2012) found that individuals who scored higher on the Dark Triad, scored lower on empathy, which is needed in managerial roles in the workplace. The same individuals scored higher on aggression, a trait which might help leaders to rise but could also be the cause of their downfall. Individuals high on the Dark Triad are also impulsive and antagonistic, which can be detrimental to the success of teams or the organization.

Research by O'Boyle, Forsyth, Banks, and McDaniel (2012) concluded that Machiavellianism and psychopathy were related to lower job performance while all three traits were associated with counterproductive work behaviour. In another study, Mathieu, Neumann, Hare, and Babiak (2014) found a relationship between corporate psychopathy and psychological distress at the workplace. Managers high on psychopathy also had subordinates who were more dissatisfied with their work.

If these dark personality traits have such disastrous consequences, then why do such individuals get hired into leadership roles in organizations at influential positions? One reason could be due to their confidence, charisma, and breadth of influence. Jonason, Slomski, and Partyka, (2012) studied influencing tactics and found that individuals high on psychopathy used hard tactics in negotiations like assertiveness, manipulation, or threats. On the other hand, individuals high on narcissism preferred to use soft tactics like compromise, favour, and ingratiation while negotiating.  Interestingly, individuals high on Machiavellianism tended to be more flexible using both hard and soft tactics to influence people, but seemed most inclined to use manipulation.

These toxic employees might pose problems for any organization, managers or peers but they get the job done. When dark personality traits exist in leaders, they seem to bring about some bright aspects of the traits like assertiveness, creativity, making a good first impression and testing the limits which in moderation are associated with business success and can help people rise in the ranks. According to Hogan & Hogan (1997), it is only when present in excess that these subclinical traits could be potential causes for leadership derailment.

While research on the dark personality has been limited to few areas within the organization, it seems to be helpful in explaining an array of behaviours at the workplace. Future research on understanding the Dark Triad in team dynamics might shed light on how successful leaders play a role in the effectiveness of team, departments and in effect organizations. The study of dark in addition to the bright personality traits gives a more rounded picture of how employees function within organizations which adds value to a holistic assessment during selection, development, and promotions into leadership roles. 

Nikita D'souza