Narcissists in the Workplace: Understanding and Incorporating “Dark” Traits in Personality Assessments

Toxic work behavior can prevent your organization from having a productive and cooperative work environment. Here’s how to assess whether your employees are prone to such behavior.

employee yelling at employee
Learn how to look out for the Dark Triad traits: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy

In a recent Workest article, we reviewed the role of personality assessments for understanding and predicting the types of employee behavior you’re looking for in your organization. The article focused specifically on a highly generalizable cluster of personality traits called the “BIG 5,” and its ability to predict important workplace outcomes such as creativity, leadership effectiveness, and overall work performance.

While the BIG 5 can provide important insight into your employees’ work behavior, you might also be interested in understanding whether your employees are prone to engaging in more destructive or “toxic” behaviors at work — such as undermining, theft, bullying, or other forms of counterproductive work behavior. Each year, organizations incur substantial financial losses due to such toxic work behavior. What’s more, such behavior can permeate all levels of the organizational hierarchy, with as many as 61% of employees reporting having witnessed or been subjected to destructive or abusive behavior from their leader.

Luckily, researchers have developed personality frameworks specifically geared toward understanding and predicting such destructive forms of work behavior.

The Dark Triad

One particularly useful framework for assessing the presence of destructive, abusive, or toxic employees is the Dark Triad, which consists of 3 traits: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy (you can find the scale here).

Like the Five Factor Model of Personality, the Dark Triad can be a useful addition to your organization’s personality assessments, whether you’re making decisions about recruitment and selection, onboarding and training, or team development. After all, research has found that Dark Triad traits can be a meaningful predictor of both positive (e.g., career success and innovative behavior) and negative (e.g., workplace deviance and fraudulent behavior) employee work outcomes.

To help you get the most out of your workforce and ensure it is comprised of productive and cooperative members, consider including the following traits in your personality assessments.

Research has found that Dark Triad traits can be a meaningful predictor of both positive (e.g., career success and innovative behavior) and negative (e.g., workplace deviance and fraudulent behavior) employee work outcomes.

Narcissism

The most widely known trait within the dark triad, narcissism reflects the degree to which an individual is entitled, self-interested, and prone to delusions of grandeur. Highly narcissistic individuals often experience illusory self-evaluations, whereby they view themselves as special and superior to others within agentic domains — such as intelligence, creativity, and physical attraction.

Out of the 3 Dark Triad traits, narcissism has received the most scholarly attention, arguably due to its potential to produce both positive and negative outcomes. For example, because of their grandiose self-image, narcissists tend to be highly confident, charismatic, and visionary — which explains why such individuals are frequently found in positions of leadership.

However, narcissists also have a number of negative qualities that can be detrimental to work outcomes, including:

  • The tendency to belittle or demean those around them
  • Difficulty taking criticism
  • An incessant need for admiration and attention

Accordingly, when considering narcissists’ role in your organization, a proper assessment of their positive and negatives qualities is warranted.

Machiavellianism

Coined after the political philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli, Machiavellianism characteristics include a cynical view of human nature, an indifference to moral principles, and preference toward manipulation when interacting with others.

In contrast to narcissists, Machiavellians typically have a much more realistic sense of self-worth, greater impulse control, and may be more strategic in their interactions with others. Nonetheless, Machiavellians tend to create dysfunction within organizations. For example, these individuals tend to:

Although their negative qualities tend to outweigh the positive, Machiavellians may — under certain circumstances — be productive members of their organizations. For instance, research suggests that under the right leadership (in particular, transformational leadership), Machiavellian employees’ selfish tendencies can be shaped in ways that positively contribute to organizational outcomes.

Psychopathy

The final trait within the Dark Triad is Psychopathy, which many think is the most malevolent and destructive of the 3 sub-clinical personality traits. Psychopathy shares some characteristics with narcissism (e.g., grandiosity) and Machiavellianism (e.g., deceptiveness). Yet, it is also distinct from these traits in that it involves a proneness to thrill-seeking, an inability to experience empathy or guilt (much more so than narcissists or Machiavellians), and meanness. Psychopathy is therefore a particularly maladaptive trait for employees, as it can generate much of the same destructive behavior as narcissism and Machiavellianism, along with strong tendencies toward anti-social behavior — including aggression.

Interestingly, research suggests that employees who exhibit psychopathic tendencies may fare well and be more engaged under abusive leaders. This may be because such employees view the success of their abusive supervisor as evidence that such toxic behavior — to which they themselves are prone — is acceptable and rewarded in the organization.

Reducing toxic work behavior is crucial for creating a productive and cooperative work environment. To help you assess whether your organizational members are prone to such behavior, consider incorporating the Dark Triad into your personality assessments.

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