Understanding the Dark Triad

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Some people have personality traits that can make it difficult to deal with them. They may be volatile, arrogant, or domineering, but, with careful management, you can develop their strengths, neutralize the challenging elements of their behavior, and restore team harmony.

Psychologists have identified three traits that make up the sinister-sounding "Dark Triad": narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. In this article, we will explore the three traits of the Dark Triad, identify the behaviors associated with each of them, and look at how they might impact the workplace.

What Is the Dark Triad?

The Dark Triad is a phrase you're unlikely to have heard around the workplace, but it is one of the "buzzwords" in the world of psychology. It refers to three distinct but related personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.

  • Narcissism: narcissism comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a hunter who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, and drowned. Narcissistic people can be selfish, boastful, arrogant, lacking in empathy, and hypersensitive to criticism.
  • Machiavellianism: the word comes from the renowned 16th-century Italian politician and diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli. He earned notoriety when his 1513 book, "The Prince," was interpreted as an endorsement of the dark arts of cunning and deceit in diplomacy. Traits associated with Machiavellianism include duplicity, manipulation, self-interest, and a lack of both emotion and morality.
  • Psychopathy: personality traits associated with psychopathy include a lack of empathy or remorse, antisocial behavior, and being manipulative and volatile. It's important to note that there is a distinction between psychopathic traits and being a psychopath, with its commonly held association with criminal violence.

How to Identify Dark Triad Traits

Traditionally, psychologists have identified Dark Triad traits by measuring different personality types separately.

However, in 2010, Dr Peter Jonason, then assistant professor of psychology at the University of Western Florida, and his co-author, Gregory Webster, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida, developed the "Dirty Dozen" rating scale, or a 12-item methodology, to measure Dark Triad traits. [1]

Jonason and Webster's measure asks people to rate themselves against these questions:

  • I tend to manipulate others to get my way.
  • I have used deceit or lied to get my way.
  • I have used flattery to get my way.
  • I tend to exploit others towards my own end.
  • I tend to lack remorse.
  • I tend to not be too concerned with morality or the morality of my actions.
  • I tend to be callous or insensitive.
  • I tend to be cynical.
  • I tend to want others to admire me.
  • I tend to want others to pay attention to me.
  • I tend to seek prestige or status.
  • I tend to expect special favors from others.

Reproduced with permission of Dr P.K. Jonason, senior lecturer, University of Western Sydney.

At its basic level, an individual would be rated from, for example, one to seven on each of the 12 tests, giving a possible score of 12 to 84. The higher the score, the higher the probability of having Dark Triad tendencies.

How to Manage People With Dark Triad Traits

If you believe a member of your team is exhibiting Dark Triad personality traits, what can you do about it?

This is a complex area and there are no easy answers. Experienced psychologists stress that there are many subtleties and gradations of personality types, and the behaviors associated with them can change from day to day. But as a manager, you will need to address negative behaviors to maintain harmony and productivity within your team.

Coping With Anger

A team member with psychopathic traits may be prone to anger and aggression, and you must defuse such situations speedily. Often, the signs of normal anger are easy to spot, for example, a raised voice, a flushed face and sweating. But some people try to suppress their anger, which can then show itself in "passive-aggressive" ways such as sulking or ignoring people.

There are a number of strategies you can use when dealing with angry people. It's important you stay safe if you feel threatened – leave the room immediately if necessary. If you're dealing with someone's ongoing anger issues, distance yourself emotionally from his behavior, and try to identify the cause of his rage with questioning techniques and active listening.

Dealing With Bullying

Sometimes anger can spill over into bullying. At a simple level, this can include verbal abuse or threatening behavior, but it can often be more subtle and include unnecessary criticism, belittling someone, or spreading malicious rumors.

If you spot bullying on your team, it's just as important to support the victim as it is to confront the bully and hold her accountable. Our article Dealing With Bullying on Your Team outlines a step-by-step strategy to help you manage such a situation.

Spotting Manipulators

There are many positive ways to influence people at work. Praise and encouragement can inspire a team member to be even more productive, for example. But if someone has more Machiavellian tendencies, they could try to influence co-workers by selfishly manipulating them, perhaps through coercion or deception.

Manipulative people are often good at hiding their behavior or actions, but there are signs you can look out for, such as someone who won't take no for an answer, who always excuses their hurtful behavior, or presents a different "face" to different people to serve their purposes.

If you challenge a manipulative person, be specific about what actions you have spotted and how they are harming your team. Make it clear that their behavior must change, and consider performance agreements to hold them accountable. You will find a lot more useful information in our article, Dealing With Manipulative People.

Coping With Narcissism

The selfishness of narcissists can be a headache rather than a threat, but it can disrupt team morale and harmony. The person may not even realize their impact on the team, so it's important to raise it with them as soon as you realize something is wrong.

A narcissist may have a big ego and do whatever they can to grab the spotlight. They may demand credit for ideas, use "I" and "me" instead of "we," and can often dominate discussions or meetings.

People with big egos often don't expect to be challenged, so stand your ground and meet their claims or demands with solid counter-arguments. It can also be useful to put them in a situation where they are dependent on colleagues' cooperation. This can increase respect and understanding. You will find more tips and potential solutions in our articles on how to deal with Egos at Work and Managing Arrogant People.

Building the Skills You Need to Cope

It can be difficult to manage many of these negative behaviors, particularly if you don't feel confident in dealing with conflict. But there are a number of ways you can improve your skills in this area. For example, you can learn to be more assertive.

And there is a lot you can do to develop your own ability to understand other people and recognize their emotional state and perspectives. You can boost your "people skills" by building empathy and emotional intelligence, and being aware of people's body language. You can better manage your own emotions with these skills, and having a greater understanding of other people can help you spot patterns of unwanted behavior before they become a threat to your team.

The Impact of Dark Triad Traits at Work

It's difficult to find anything positive to say about the impact Dark Triad traits would have in the workplace. Someone with such a psychological make-up would probably display an undesirable behavior, such as being aggressive, volatile, selfish, and deceitful, or a combination of such traits. In his paper, The Dark Side of Personality at Work, Dr Seth Spain said there was evidence of a "fairly robust relationship between Machiavellianism and unethical decision-making in organizations." [2]

Research by Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams, psychologists at the University of British Columbia, argue that tendencies associated with narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy often overlap, but the three are nevertheless separate entities. [3] Further research found common correlations between them were dishonesty and a lack of humility. [4]

And a study specifically looking at the Dark Triad at work claims that employees with its character traits are "toxic." In some instances, they lead men, in particular, to be more aggressive in workplace relationships, or try to influence people or events more forcefully. [5]

However, there is evidence that narcissism can be, in some ways, a beneficial trait. A narcissist will often have a higher sense of self-worth, and this can make them more motivated and successful. Researchers argue that narcissists have more "mental toughness" – resilience to negative events and challenges. [6] But, in time, their constant "me, me, me" tendency may become wearing on people around them.

Guarding Against the Subtle Influence of Dark Triad Individuals

In his book, "Office Politics," psychologist Oliver James declares that Dark Triad tendencies can give someone a nefarious advantage in the workplace, in terms of career and progression. Being "triadic," that is exhibiting all three of the Dark Triad tendencies, can help people bully or manipulate their way to the top of an organization. [7]

Patrick Fagan, an associate lecturer in consumer behavior at Goldsmiths, University of London, in the U.K., also suggests the dark traits can help individuals "get ahead," even if they don't "get along." Narcissists' high self-esteem may give them a high yearning for leadership, psychopathic people tend to focus on achievement without being too concerned at the effect their ambition might have on others, and Machiavellians can be very adept at portraying themselves in a good light. [8]

Clive Boddy, Professor of Leadership and Organization Behavior at Middlesex University in the U.K., contends that Dark Triad traits can lead to the creation of "corporate psychopaths" with a diminished sense of corporate or collective responsibility. He argues such personality types are often more prevalent within sectors such as financial services and the civil service. [9] (We can speculate that these behaviors may have played a key part in the catastrophe of the global financial crisis of 2004-08.)

Clearly, these traits put the desires of one, "dark side" individual above the needs of the organization, the people within it, and those it serves, and this can destroy good organizations, particularly if this person is in a leadership role. So managers at all levels need to keep an eye out for Dark Triad behaviors, guard against them, and deal with them vigorously. (Where appropriate, this may involve removing people showing these behaviors from the organization.)