Most of us have heard about or come across leaders that are not sociable, are extremely power-driven or show little empathy. These people might fall under the dark triad of personality. Several questions are likely to come up when we reflect on dark triad leaders: What are their characteristics? Are they generally bad leaders? Do we have to be careful? Or, most importantly, how would you cope if someone you work with had such a personality? We will shed some light on these questions.
Have you met a dark triad leader?
Take a moment and reflect if any of your clients would agree to them before reading on.
- I have a take-charge personality.
- I don’t like to depend on other people to do things.
- I’m better than other people at most things.
- I think it is important to look as good as possible.
- I do things that get people to notice me.
- I expect to be treated better than average.
- If I have to take advantage of somebody to get what I want, so be it.
- I have a natural talent for influencing people.
- I like having authority over people.
- I see myself as a good leader.
These are some exemplary items from the Grandiose Narcissism Scale and the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.
A narcissistic disposition and a social dominance motivation are key drivers for pursuing a leadership position. It is therefore not surprising if somebody comes to your mind immediately – especially those CEOs with the highest compensation, as they also score the highest in narcissism. We find all three dark triad personalities – narcissists, Machiavellians and psychopaths – in leadership positions.
Narcissistic leaders embody many of the traits associated with a prototypical leader such as charisma, self-confidence, strength and energy. They are extrovert, will easily lead discussions, excel in group situations, and attract and inspire followers. And just like Machiavellian and psychopathic personalities, they have a motivation for power, and use manipulation tactics and social dominance. As dominant people appear competent (even if they are not), they not only want to achieve leadership positions, but they also have a higher chance of emerging as leaders or being promoted. There is ample empirical support for a positive relation between dark personality traits and leader emergence. Through good self-promotion, taking risks, navigating politics or by emerging in times of crisis, these personalities will stand out above other potential leaders and therefore effectively position themselves for future leadership opportunities.
It is likely that dark triad leaders appear in our searches. But is that good – or is it bad?
The correct answer is: It depends.
It would be easy to assume that dark traits are universally bad. Yet there is a growing body of research indicating that this is an oversimplification. The dark triad personality traits have their upsides and downsides (as, by the way, do all the bright personality traits).
Why dark triad leadership can be an advantage for business
CEO overconfidence (most prominent in narcissists) is positively related to firm innovation. Narcissistic leaders can provide guidance and support in times of crisis and come across as competent and likable (although mainly in the short term). They act forward-driven, provide vision and inspiration, are courageous and confident. Narcissistic CEOs can help firms recover from shock. In addition, they appear to resist social influence and are high achievers. Especially in times of crisis and change, narcissist leaders can be effective and thrive, as they assertively voice their point of view and are confident. Machiavellians are good administrators. They have good negotiation skills and are self-controlled. Leaders higher on Machiavellianism show a wider range of appropriate behaviors than leaders low on Machiavellianism. Psychopathic leaders can use their communication skills well.
Be careful: The downsides of dark triad leaders
However, emerging as a leader does not necessarily equate to being an effective one. And the evidence for dark triad leaders is mixed: Studies on narcissism and leader effectiveness report either no or a negative correlation. Furthermore, leader narcissism is positively related to financial misreporting, corporate tax sheltering, organizational risk-taking and indicators of firm overinvestment. Over time, narcissistic CEOs claim higher compensation, increasing the pay gap between CEO and senior management (with negative consequences for the firm, as a strong pay gap positively correlates with lower firm performance as well as lower satisfaction). Furthermore, dark triad personalities have direct negative effects: Narcissistic leaders impair the quality of team decisions by inhibiting information exchange, and all three dark triad personalities predict counterproductive work behavior. Machiavellian leaders abuse their leadership position for their personal interests. They are dishonest and are seen as abusive supervisors. Psychopathic leaders focus on strengthening their own position while implementing a climate of fear; under their leadership, staff withdrawal and turnover rates are high. A case study of a psychopathic CEO revealed that in comparison to an earlier authentic and transformational CEO in the same company, bullying and staff turnover increased whereas revenues, commitment and creativity declined. However, empirical evidence on Machiavellian and psychopathic leaders is scarce and these findings should not be overinterpreted.
Bottom line: Is this good or bad?
Whether this is good or bad depends on the circumstances. Dark triad leaders are either praised as visionaries and role models or they can destroy entire companies – or something in between. Many of their problematic characteristics (e.g., self-confidence, grandiosity, an exploitative nature, and persistence) can also make the dark triad personalities successful. We could therefore also think about dark-side tendencies as overused strengths, as tendencies that are fairly adaptive and good for short-term success and in unpredictable environments, but may nonetheless lead to problems in the long term. As most of the studies (for both the bright and the dark side) are of a correlational nature, we must be cautious about statements of causation – merely putting a dark triad leader into a leadership position does not determine the outcome.
What we can do when encountering a dark triad leader
As mentioned, this dark side of leadership represents a part of leadership reality that we will come across. And when we encounter those leaders, we will notice that all three of the dark triad personalities have excellent communication skills and that they will perform extremely well in interview situations. Taking references, as we do, is therefore a good strategy.
We should be aware that even if there are circumstances where dark triad leaders will perform well, chances are high that this will be a rather short-term effect. The core aspects of all three dark triad personalities – their selfishness and manipulative character – will probably lead to detrimental effects in the long term.
However, knowing about the dark triad personalities and their strengths and weaknesses can help us guide their development. We can reflect with them, build on their strengths and work on neutralizing their weaknesses. If we can create an atmosphere where we do not to threaten their self-value (as this is one of their weak spots), we have a chance to support them and their organizations to manage crises and grow.
Brief Description of the Dark Triad PersonalitiesDark triad personalities come in different variations, but they share selfishness, show a high social dominance orientation, are impulsive and manipulative and lack empathy (although they do understand the emotions of others, they are missing an adequate affective response). All three personality traits of the dark triad are subclinical – they are aversive but still within the normal range of functioning. Men typically show higher levels of all three traits then women. Narcissism is the most widely researched of the three in an organizational setting.
Narcissists maintain a positive view of the self through many strategies and are grandiose self-promoters. They express arrogance, superiority, entitlement and an inflated self-image. Often, they fail to use socially appropriate behaviors and strategies in order to fulfill their need for recognition and self-enhancement – they become aggressive or dominant.
Machiavellians are master manipulators with a long-term strategy, are cynical and tactical and use prosocial as well as antisocial tactics to reach their goals. They have a diminished affect in interpersonal relationships, are amoral and show little commitment to an ideology. Their prime motivators are power, status and success.
Psychopaths are the most antisocial of the three. They are impulsive, manipulative, callous, and lack empathy. Psychopaths are unable to control their antisocial impulses and show high risk-taking behavior; they bully and can even be violent.
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The statements at the beginning of the article are part of the Grandiose Narcissism Scale and the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.