The dark traits of leadership—and how to avoid them

The psychological theory of personality known as the Dark Triad—narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism—often carries a sinister undertone. When it comes to leaders, research has shown that these traits have a complex relationship to leadership and leader effectiveness.

Although the Dark Triad is negatively associated with responsibility, job performance, and overall performance, it has been positively correlated with charisma, creativity, strategic thinking, and communication skills. Individuals with strong dark traits can appear successful in certain situational contexts, particularly when their work requires a rational and unemotional behavioral style, risk-taking, and achievement orientation, even if it means harming others. This suggests that these individuals might be able to work effectively on an individual level while harming the organization.

Dark Triad leaders can create a toxic environment that can be detrimental to employees, colleagues, and an organization as a whole.

So what are these dark traits and how can we distinguish them?

  • Psychopathy – Guiltlessness, low levels of empathy and responsibility, and high levels of egocentricity and impulsiveness
  • Machiavellianism – Ruthlessness, selfishness and a manipulative personality
  • Narcissism – Feelings of personal entitlement and superiority, jealousy of success, and exploitative behavior

While each of these three traits have elements that set them apart from their Dark Triad counterparts, there is a significant degree of overlap between them. Common behavioral subcomponents found at least to some degree in each of the Dark Triad traits include excessive self-interest, reckless disregard for others, manipulative behavior, and emotional carelessness.

When recruiting, it’s not always easy to determine who will exhibit these qualities. In general, individuals tend to tone down their negative traits. Individuals with many dark traits are more likely to downplay their dark traits because they have a natural propensity for self-improvement. The recruitment context presents a clear external reward (receiving a job offer) and individuals with many obscure traits are susceptible to manipulation and presentation management to achieve a desired outcome.

The challenge is to identify them before irreparable damage occurs. It starts at the recruitment stage and ensures the right candidate is selected and adequately screened.

Identification of the Dark Triad in a recruit

Most assessments look for well-rounded individuals who score high in qualities that are valuable to an organization and the role they aspire to fill. Many of these assessment measures are traditional self-report personality instruments, in which individuals respond to a series of statements about their attitudes and beliefs.

However, there is some concern that this type of measure might be subject to respondent bias.

Given the manipulative nature of some individuals with dark traits, a standard assessment approach is less likely to uncover inconsistencies if the candidate understands how to assess them. This then begs the question: would a less transparent approach be more effective?

An alternative is to use conditioned reasoning, where the responses are non-linear and involve measuring a range of implicit emotions, beliefs, attitudes, or motives. It is an approach that is better at masking the explicit purpose of an assessment and has been used successfully to identify undesirable traits such as aggression or lack of integrity.

A hybrid assessment approach, using both psychological theory and data-driven methods, helps to detect and measure unwanted attitude traits and behaviors via algorithmic response patterns in self-report assessments. This allows recruiters and hiring managers to assess the likelihood of a candidate’s risk for certain toxic personality traits that can be further explored during interviews or references.

It should be emphasized that these subclinical approaches to measurement cannot replace a proper professional clinical diagnosis of personality disorders. A person may actually score well on one or more of these scales and still not meet clinical criteria for a personality disorder. However, it is encouraging to see that leveraging data science can help us measure characteristics that have traditionally been more difficult to capture and that can have a significant impact on work behavior.

How dark traits negatively impact organizations

In an environment where recruiting and retaining talent is challenging, it’s tempting to skip recruiting or take a lighter approach — sacrificing quality for speed. However, the time spent on the correct evaluation pays off.

The consequences of making the wrong choice have long been recognized. According to the Society of Human Resource Management, the average cost to hire an employee is $4,700, with that cost tripling for executive and managerial positions.

The cost of hiring someone with dark features can be even greater, with consequences for subordinates, customers, finances, and reputation. If you have high DT traits, you run the risk of these individuals cultivating a negative organizational climate. These personalities are more prone to engage in immoral and unethical behavior to achieve their goals, including bullying tactics, deception, concealment, and general rejection of rules or norms accepted by society.

Research has shown that individuals with dark traits have generally been associated with several negative and potentially costly outcomes in the workplace, including:

  • Poor job performance by themselves and their subordinates.
  • Increased counterproductive work behavior.
  • Less organizational citizenship behavior.
  • Lower levels of ethical decision-making.
  • Negative perceptions of others
  • Low team morale.
  • Greater likelihood of engaging in criminal/illegal conduct.

Unfortunately, those in a higher position have the greatest potential to wreak havoc. You are in a position of influence, involved in confidential information and finance, and responsible for making good or bad decisions.

The impact on a business can be significant, not only financially but also in terms of reputation.

It’s really a question of the potential risk to the company of making a bad hire, which can be context dependent. The qualities that contribute to effective leadership are a function of the context in which the leader operates. For those responsible for vulnerable people, in finance, in the government of a nation, or in areas where health and safety are vital, the consequences of poor attitude and the consequences it brings can be far-reaching. The first step is for the recruitment process to be rigorous to facilitate early identification of toxic leaders to limit the potential for their destructive powers in organizational contexts.

Kristin Delgado is a research and development manager at a recruitment agency talology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *