The Dark Triad: Your Colleagues
Narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism form what is called “the dark triad.” These personality profiles are found to be fairly common in normal work settings. They fall into the category of Counterproductive Work Behaviors (CWB), which cost organizations millions, if not billions, of dollars annually.
While I’ve touched upon Machiavelli HERE, this blog is about recognizing the traits within your organization.
First, a distinction between those who are narcissists and those who have Narcissist Personality Disorder (NPD). The latter is a mental illness where the individual has self-esteem issues, and some sort of deep sense of shame and humiliation, but come across as attention-seeking, confident individuals. They usually do not have the wherewithal to rise to power, because they crumble at the slightest criticism. Narcissists will react to challenges and criticism with rage; not anger. This is because they have exaggerated views of their achievements and abilities, and their most pressing needs are for admiration and praise. They do not like to share the spotlight, as they are envious beyond measure.
Narcissists tend to draw people in with their charm and overabundant self-confidence, but that is, in essence, the love they have for themselves. The rules do not apply to them, so they offer no apologies, but expect loyalty.
Narcissists rarely, if ever, see anyone as their equal. (E.g. Larry Ellison; Steve Jobs). They are “more worthy” than others and, therefore, believe they are entitled to power, money, and prestige. Not only are they heavily critical of others, they believe they have the right to exploit and control others to their advantage without feeling guilty. They can be profoundly apathetic and even ruthless towards others. In fact, they feel better when degrading others.
INFECTING CULTURE: Narcissistic leaders excel in communicating their inspirational messages and ambitious visions. This allows narcissistic leaders to draw their audience in and shape their beliefs (Have them “drink the Kool Aid” – a reference to infamous narcissist-psychopath, Jim Jones). The effect of instilling a vision as truth or fact is particularly effective on those who are inclined to be servile and laudatory – essentially, the quiet type who doesn’t like taking a stand or voicing opposition, they just like to follow. Together, the narcissistic leader and the submissive direct report(s) form a co-dependent relationship. One wants to self-feed his/her need for dominance, while the other wants to follow. (Freud had a field day on this topic). In fact, vast amounts of empirical data, suggest that narcissism is at full force within an organization when the toxic triangle consists of the following three components: 1) narcissistic leader, 2) susceptible followers, 3) contaminated environments.
FINANCIAL RISK: Narcissistic leaders tend to make more impulsive and risky decisions, such as tremendously overpaying for a company acquisition. This behavior is a reflection of their megalomania (delusions of wealth, power, and/or knowledge); although, not all narcissists are megalomaniacs, but all megalomaniacs are indeed narcissists. They may be the CEO of a small to medium-sized company, but close the deal by flying in on their own jet, due to their egomania (excessive vanity, pride, arrogance), while touting how ecological the company is.
The Psychopaths (Social Predators)
First, the term “psychopath” is used interchangeably with “sociopath”; however, the serious distinction is that psychopaths are more dangerous. Not only do they need a human to take advantage of (usually after isolating the prey from others), predatory behavior is their most prized objective in their life. This is what separates them from the narcissist, although they can certainly be both (e.g. Harvey Weinstein). For the sake of this blog, we shall stick with the model.
According to Drs. Babiak and O’Toole, psychopaths are more commonly found in corporate settings than in the overall population. Psychopaths are parasitic in that they experience positive emotions when they see/cause others to suffer, and negative emotions when they don’t. Their most important priority is getting away with it; not getting caught. (E.g. Matt Lauer, Bernie Madoff; Jerry Sandusky).
INFECTING CULTURE: Several have earned an advanced degree, such as Ph.D., M.D., or J.D. degree (e.g. Ted Bundy). Psychopathic leaders are more likely to either describe themselves as hands-off managers and/or practice a laissez-faire leadership style. Consequently, their teams end up being less engaged and more dissatisfied w their jobs than the corporate norm.
FINANCIAL RISK: Psychopathic leaders may be praised for their capability to make tough decisions and stay calm in the heat of battle; however, this misperception is actually the inability to feel emotions. While it may be argued that negotiations require separating emotion from business, the war for talent may well become the war on talent, leading entire divisions towards failure and significant losses.
Machiavellians are politically savvy psychopaths who are more likely to engage in counterproductive work behaviors, especially the type that concerns mistreatment and betrayal of work colleagues. They are the most socially skilled of the three types within the Dark Triad, because they are capable of manipulating and influencing others by pretending to agree with them while hiding their true intentions. They use others as stepping stones and use lies/deceit to advance themselves.
There is a strong overlap between Machiavellians and psychopaths, in that both are characterized by clear deficits in moral standards and empathy. The distinction is that psychopaths purposely set out to hurt others for enjoyment, whereas Machiavellians will injure someone solely for socio-political advancement and/or financial gain.
While a narcissist exposes him-/herself with anger and jealousy over someone else’s success, a Machiavellian is not delusional, can mask their true emotions well, and will accept the success of someone else if that means s/he could also move up the ladder.
INFECTING CULTURE – Since Machiavellian leaders are socially intelligent and unethical, they end up accomplishing their goals as they harm others, thereby fomenting a “dog eat dog” work climate. For example, Travis Kalanick, founder of Uber, allowed several of his executive leaders (at HQ and across world regions) room and direction for unethical and questionable behavior. Dissension is created. Top talent is lost (e.g. Susan Fowler, Uber engineer).
FINANCIAL RISK: Machiavellians have crooked ethical views that lead to justification of their corrupt behaviors. (E.g. Enron’s “Burn, baby, burn“). In today’s social media world, sooner or later, most Machiavellians are bound to have short-lived successes and long-term career struggles.
What Ado about Something
LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT. Research indicates that corporate organizations which use leadership development interventions benefit from focusing on the dark side, in part because dark side traits predict how leaders respond to coaching and change interventions. Narcissists are incapable of assessing their own performance, since they always overrate their abilities. Because they believe they are perfect, narcissistic leaders are likely to be the ones who resist coaching and developmental interventions altogether. It’s for other people to do.
COACHING. If you manage to get a narcissistic leader in a coaching opportunity as coachee, remember that s/he is more likely to react defensively to negative feedback. Business psychologist Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic: “There is arguably no better way to spot a narcissist than to question his talents and see how he responds – the more self-obsessed and deluded a leader is, the angrier this will make him.”
360-DEGREE ASSESSMENTS. This tool can be used to effectively identify workplace psychopaths, but they also tend to produce many false positives. Once identified, bear in mind that in most cases, psychopaths they will not change. Leaders will have to openly demonstrate the ability to be self-critical in order to be seen as more self-aware by their peers and direct reports. When leaders lack self-awareness, their dark side tendencies create toxic work environments, damage morale, destruct team cohesion, reduce productivity, spike attrition, and cause other corporate maladies because they are incapable of recognizing others’ perceptions and of making attempts to modify their ineffective behaviors.
Society’s current largest workforce, millennial employees, is asking for more feedback than any previous generation. Building self-awareness, especially awareness of one’s limitations, will only help any organization thrive. Therefore, having these interventions on a regular basis is paramount to organizational success and survival. Build on the two traits Millennials offer, curiosity and entrepreneurship. Exhibitors of those traits are those whose talent must be retained.
The worst part of evil is that one gets used to it. – Jean-Paul Sartre
Rossina Gil, MSOD, MAIS, is a Global Leadership and Organization Development Practitioner, and the founder of Corporate Looking Glass, LLC – a diverse consultancy of coaches. She is the author of The Corporate Looking Glass: Using Culture for Your Competitive Advantage. Visit CorporateLookingGlass.com.
Babiak, Paul; O’Toole, Mary Ellen. The Corporate Psychopath. https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/the-corporate-psychopath
Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas. The Talent Delusion: Why Data Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential. Piatkus. 2017.
Navarro, Joe. Dangerous Personalities. 2017.
Twenge, Jean; Campbell, W. Keith. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Free Press, NY:NY. 2009.