"Dark Triad" of personality types can help workers bag senior roles

17 July 2014 -


Staffers who carefully deploy traits that are often seen as undesirable can haul themselves further up the career ladder, according to new research

Jermaine Haughton

Controlled doses of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy can help ambitious workers to push their way to the top, according to a new study published in the latest Journal of Organisational Behaviour. Titled The Dark Side of Personality at Work, the wide-ranging review of 140 workplace personality studies aimed to assess whether this “Dark Triad” of personality traits – often seen as negative – could be put to positive use. The answer was yes – at least in the short term.

Led by author Seth M Spain, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at New York-based Binghamton University, the study found that a more manipulative person can leverage their skills to acquire valuable intelligence for competitive advantage. Meanwhile, a narcissist can be great at making sales, and an antisocial or psychopathic personality will carry out the dirty work required to push a company forward.

In fact, the review showed that during a limited period, the application of Dark Traits in small amounts can explain why the “not-so-smart gal” can make sales on her first day – or why the “inexperienced guy” can pitch better than more seasoned colleagues.

With all this in mind, Insights presents a handy spotter’s guide that will help you identify these traits in your peers – and steer you away from overusing them:

1. Mirror, mirror…

A person who wants to be the centre of attention and uses charm to seek prestige and status is considered a narcissist. And while initially the trait can be impactful in creating a good first impression – particularly if that involves being bubbly and enthusiastic – it can eventually appear selfish and demanding to colleagues and make them weary. 

2. Justifying the meanness

Machiavellianism, on the other hand, represents a person who influences others for personal gain and uses flattery and deception to get results. The term is often used to describe politicians, such as Joseph Stalin or Tony Blair, who use the power of negotiation to build alliances. However, people who fall into this bracket can also be seen as deceitful and untrustworthy, which can eventually destroy their ties within an organisation.

3. Sharp as a razor

The third trait, psychopathy, describes someone who is unconcerned with others’ feelings or welfare and has an impulsive, thrill-seeking streak. A hedonist who is willing to push the boundaries, this character can often blossom as a great creative or artist with a desire to challenge the norm. If not well controlled, though, this trait can spiral into antagonism among colleagues.

Managers must be aware of these traits in their staff, as they can have destabilising effects on the mood and culture of their businesses if not effectively monitored. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal about the study, Gary Zeune – founder of The Pros & The Cons, a speakers’ agency that employs former white-collar criminals to talk about fraud prevention – said that managers can spot Dark Triad personalities among co-workers by keeping an eye out for bullying behaviour. He also says that workers must be aware of the new colleague who “tries to be way too nice for what they’re asking you to do”.

Read the full study The Dark Side of Personality at Work.

For more on these issues, check out this special CMI blog by organisational psychotherapist Dr Graham Wilson.

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