We have all heard of the dark triad of personality – the terms narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy permeate politics, boardrooms and popular culture. Since first identified in the psychology literature in 2002, the dark triad has appeared increasingly not only in scientific publications, but also in management articles, and is now firmly ensconced in our collective vocabulary. In 2019, googling ‘dark triad’ results in more than 15 million hits.
We all know leaders who display disruptive or destructive behaviours and we know what the consequences of these behaviours can be for those around them. Research also connects dark triad behaviours with increased fraud, workplace bullying, lower integrity, low morale, poorer organisational culture and reduced individual and team performance. According to the research, those with dark triad traits do emerge as leaders, but – importantly – show no better (and in fact often worse) leadership performance.
Spotting leadership derailers
The increased complexity and unpredictability of the 21st century workplace exponentially intensifies the impact of effective leadership. As industry professionals, it is therefore vital to be able to pinpoint not only an employee’s ‘bright side’, but also the dark side derailers that can compromise individual performance, and lead to serious financial and personal implications for employees and their organisations.
Overwhelming scientific evidence proves that dark triad traits are highly effective predictors of job performance and are therefore the most critical derailers to measure. This begs the question: if assessing the dark triad matters so much, why is there such a reluctance to identify and measure it in organisations?
High-impact assessment for high-risk hires
Traditionally, the only dark side measures available have not been appropriate to use in occupational settings, as they contain items that could never be approved by human resources teams. More general measures of leadership derailment tend to cover a wide range of traits at a broad level, not the dark triad specifically. These, and measures of normal personality can yield a great deal of useful information. However, in high-risk situations, it is the dark triad traits which research shows really matter to individual, team and organisational performance and well-being.
Adapting the dark triad for the workplace
So, what does the dark triad look like in the workplace? Based on the breakthrough research by psychologists Professor Dominik Schwarzinger and Professor Heinz Schuler, the dark triad at work can now be identified and measured in a valid and reliable way. They identified these three factors and subscales:
Self-centred work approach
This first factor measures an exaggeration of self-worth with respect to one’s own significance, leadership skills and impact at work, as well as the pleasure in exercising authority over colleagues:
Enforcement-focused work attitude
This second factor describes an emotional toughness and distrustful attitude towards colleagues, due to confidence in one’s own strength and ability to achieve in the workplace:
Uncommitted-impulsive work style
This third factor captures an unstructured work style related to irresponsible or abrupt actions, with a readiness to break rules or use deceit to reach professional goals:
Each of these personality characteristics are relevant to job performance and in moderation, and in context, they can also help to contribute to effective leadership. The issue becomes when these traits are elevated or overused – it is then that effectiveness tips quickly into destructive counterproductive work behaviours.
Introducing the Dark Triad of Personality at Work
These work-specific traits have been developed into the Dark Triad of Personality at Work (TOP) questionnaire. Just released into the UK market with norms based on the UK working populations (and a subset of managers), it is not surprising that it is already receiving significant attention. For the first time, organisations can pinpoint these most critical derailers at a detailed level. When used alongside a measure of normal personality (such as the NEO Personality Inventory), the TOP helps to inform critical selection decisions more effectively and confidently, and reduces the danger of getting high-risk talent decisions wrong. Importantly, the insights from this dark side measure can also be used to more successfully manage, and develop, existing employees.