Examining the Dark Side
The Dark Triad is a term coined by psychologists to refer to three distinct but related personality traits: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy. These traits are considered ‘dark’ due to their malevolent nature (cue the ominous music):
- Narcissism is characterized by grandiosity, pride, egotism, and a lack of empathy.
- Machiavellianism is marked by manipulation, unemotional callousness, and indifference to morality.
- Psychopathy is defined by enduring antisocial behavior, impulsivity, selfishness, and remorselessness.
Though the descriptions (and music) might sound ominous, these personality traits are more common in the workplace than you might think. Let’s dig a bit deeper to see how they manifest in our organizations.
People exhibiting narcissistic characteristics may seek leadership positions to assert dominance and gain admiration. While some behaviors related to this trait can be objectively positive (confidence and charisma, for example), an imbalance in these behaviors can become seriously problematic (self-absorption, diminished empathy for others, excessive validation seeking, etc). Examples of how this might show up in our work includes:
- Excessive self-promotion and time spent on personal image; always finding a way to bring up personal achievements into conversations, or stealing the limelight in team meetings.
- Unwillingness to listen to others or tend their needs; resisting teammates’ feedback or criticism that doesn’t align with one’s self image or personal agenda
- Taking credit for others’ work; appropriating ideas, and unfairly associating oneself with others’ successes
Machiavellianism gets its name from political writer Niccolò Machiavelli, who famously advocated for crafty and manipulative leadership methods. When leaders favor deceit and power plays to further their objectives at others’ expense, it nurtures a “survival of the fittest” culture. Besides sabotaging the spirit of teamwork, this trait can trigger a nosedive in morale and productivity. Machiavellianism at work can look like:
- Focusing on personal gain, even if it involves deceit or manipulation; engaging in networking activities with a sole focus on utility, forming relationships based purely on strategic advantages.
- Highly calculated thinking coupled with indifference to moral concerns; spreading rumors to undermine competitors or fabricating information to present oneself in a more favorable light.
- “I before We”; manipulating team dynamics to place oneself in favorable positions or undermine others on the team.
Psychopathy in a business context isn’t as chilling as it sounds. It might manifest as a lack of empathy, impulsivity, or a tendency to take risks without considering potential consequences. Like narcissism, psychopathy can look like engaging in harmful behaviors, such as bullying, lying, or taking undue credit. A lack of remorse and empathy can lead to harmful actions without any sense of guilt or responsibility. Examples of psychopathy at work can include:
- Regularly disregarding the rules and taking uncalculated risks; skipping important safety checks for the sake of efficiency or innovation.
- Dismissing a colleague’s personal issues or displaying indifference towards others’ emotional states.
- Misrepresenting the truth of the situation; lying about one’s role on a project, shifting blame to others when things go wrong.
In the short to mid-term, leveraging the aggression and charisma associated with Dark Triad traits may indeed catalyze an individual’s promotion and career progression. However, from a long-term perspective and when considering the broader organizational impact, these traits can spell complete and utter disaster. They often cultivate a poisonous work environment that escalates employee turnover, shatters the organization’s culture, and leads to subpar performance overall.
A Timely Micro-Case Study
So, why do so many people rise to the ranks of leadership in our organizations when exhibiting these behaviors?
Often, these bold actions and charismatic personas are misinterpreted as strong leadership material. Consider Stockton Rush, the late CEO of OceanGate. His daring nature and disdain for rules was touted as fueling innovation in deep-sea exploration (at least, in his own mind and among a few in his company). However, this same audacity led to the dismissal of safety regulations, culminating in a fatal tragedy for him and four other passengers on his vessel just days ago.
Yet, in some cases, this lack of balance isn’t as blatant as disregarding safety rules. It might sneak into our organizations as something more subtle, yet equally as destructive, like blame-shifting. A leader’s charisma or vision can become an effective smoke-screen for a culture of avoiding responsibility. There are also other behaviors that bolster these leaders’ ascent. For example, they may use charm to build alliances, or exhibit extreme confidence which can be mistaken for competence. At times, their decisiveness and assertiveness might be seen as strength, even when it borders on authoritarianism. These are just a few ways the Dark Triad traits can disguise themselves, and in doing so, help pave the way for a rise to leadership.
Take Heed Lest You Fall
Before we go off on a crusade to eradicate the world of “dark leaders”, I think it’s important to do some self reflection. It can be easy to point fingers, to think of the leaders around us exhibiting problematic behaviors or the recent moral failings of public figures and say, “Wow, what a dumpster fire of a person. I could never be so depraved/selfish/immoral/etc.”
It’s tempting to indulge in schadenfreude, to claim the moral high ground when we witness these extreme instances of ethical decline leading to significant personal fallout and destruction. But we need to remember that no leader or leadership team is perfect. We can all fall victim to self-interest and distorted thinking when power and success are on the table. Is there a high likelihood that our actions will lead to the death of 5 people 12,500 feet below sea level, the complete dissolution of a faith community serving 14,000+ people, or defrauding investors out of $700M+ of dollars for a technology that doesn’t even exist? Perhaps not. But we should reconsider labeling people as “narcissists” or “psychopaths” indiscriminately – remember that most of us are trying, albeit imperfectly, to do good in the world and add value to the teams and people around us.
So, What Should We Do?
This is where the concepts of radical candor, grace, and accountability come into play. By adopting radical candor, we foster an environment where honest feedback is shared directly, helping us avoid falling into the traps of the Dark Triad. At the same time, we must extend grace to ourselves and others, understanding that we are all human and, as such, are susceptible to flaws and mistakes. Lastly, true accountability ensures we take responsibility for our actions and learn from our missteps, rather than hiding them or allowing them to be repeated. Recognizing that imperfection is part of the human condition can keep us grounded, humble, and open to embracing a growth mindset.
Now let’s talk about a few things we can do to curb the Dark Triad behaviors in our organizations. A few ideas…
- Take a personal, relational approach. Consider the integral role that genuine community plays in our organizations. Within the safety of a supportive community, we can be brave enough to practice radical candor and receive it from others. This consistent practice facilitates genuine self-reflection and growth. It fosters a culture where we can admit mistakes, learn, and move forward without unnecessary shame or blame.
- Define what you expect of your leaders. These expectations should be based on your business strategy and the culture you aspire to create. This isn’t just about hitting KPIs, but also about how they create healthy, productive environments through how leaders engage with their teams, work with their peers, and make decisions. It’s crucial to articulate that leaders will be held accountable to these expectations.
- Remember that the answer is not just about relationship building and personal understanding – robust organizational governance and compliance is critical and can provide the checks and balances needed to ensure that dark traits don’t go unchecked at all levels of the organization. Having a framework that enables accountability, transparency, and fairness will help keep your people safe and your company out of legal and ethical hot water.
- Talk about it. The dialogue around human fallibility, ethics, and morality in business should always be front and center. Why? Because those of us in positions to shape culture and organizational design need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of these toxic behaviors, not just in others but in ourselves too. We need to be prepared to hold up the mirror and take action to protect our organizational mission, values, and of course, our people.
If you’d like to learn more about the impact that a leader’s or team’s personality, mindset, and behavior can have on organizational success, BOxD is here to help!