The personality traits that can derail your career

Written by  Ian MacRae Wednesday 27 October 2021
To lead effectively, you need to understand how your team members react under extreme pressure – and the dark side of their personality
An image of Darth Vader

Everyone has a natural way of responding to people and their environment. The consistent patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving are what psychologists call personality.

Personality traits have positive aspects: we might see patterns of being good at self-motivation and long-term planning (conscientiousness) or innovative, creative, information seekers (openness to experience).

But there is also a dark side of personality, where we see patterns of behaviour that cause problems, conflict and distress in the workplace.

Personality and stress responses

Counterproductive behaviours tend to come out under stress: people who are naturally perfectionistic can become enraged by small errors; people who are normally vigilant may become paranoid; employees who are natural people-pleasers may become desperate for attention and approval. Normal, adaptive workplace behaviours can become dysfunctional when amplified.

Everyone has a set of behaviours they use to combat stress and alleviate tension. Most people use strategies that work fairly well most of the time. However, these strategies are not always effective, and may even be counterproductive when taken to extremes.

Why is this important for managers?

There’s a couple of ways we can look at personality:

  1. Selecting and identifying for the ‘bright’ side – the positive traits that will help people be more successful in certain roles, teams and projects.
  2. Identifying and managing the ‘dark’ side – the behaviours employees use when under extreme stress or pressure.

Managers tend to focus on the first point, but sometimes overlook the darker side of employee behaviour and find it difficult to talk about the behaviours that come out during times of stress or adversity.

Everyone has periods in their days and their lives when stress becomes overwhelming, and people say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time. But part of managing and mitigating that is self-awareness and – for managers – understanding other people’s dark sides.

What’s your dark side?

A useful self-awareness exercise is to reflect on your own personality style and understand your dark side in relation to other people’s personality styles.

To help with this, consider how you fit into the clusters below. Note that these patterns are not mutually exclusive; some people use a combination of these based on a lifetime of experience.

Cluster A: Eccentric Styles – Driven to be different

  • Wary – cautious about the motivations of other people and tend to be hyper-vigilant. Good at threat detection.
  • Solitary – prefer to work alone, often focusing on specific tasks without interruption. Good at independent work and thought.
  • Unconventional – need to be seen as unique and different, dislike ‘normal’. Good at approaching problems from a different perspective.

Cluster B: Assertive Styles – Driven to achieve control

  • Aggressive – have a persistent desire for excitement and fear of missing out. Good at taking decisive action.
  • Impulsive – tend to run very hot and cold and can be intense but unpredictable. Good at initiating relationships and sparking new ideas.
  • Dramatic – have a strong desire to be noticed and be seen by others. Good at commanding and holding the attention of others.
  • Confident – presentation and image is extremely important. Good at projecting confidence.
  • Resourceful – value outcomes over relationships. Good at getting things done at all costs.

Cluster C: Anxious Styles – Driven to fix problems

  • Sensitive – keenly aware of interpersonal conflicts. Good at peace-making and consensus-building.
  • Selfless – have a strong need to be useful and helpful to others. Good at advisory and support roles.
  • Perfectionistic – high desire for order, control and productivity. Good at long-term planning.

How do you react to your own stress compared with others you work with? Which strategies do you normally use? Think about times they have been effective as well as when they have caused conflict in the workplace. And for more help understanding your own style, take your own free dark side personality test.

Ian’s book Dark Social: Understanding the darker side of work, personality and social media (Bloomsbury, 2021) is out from 11 November.

Image: Shutterstock/Willrow Hood

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Ian MacRae is a work psychologist and author of six books.

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