The toxic leadership blog

Understanding the Dark Traid

The three factors in the Dark Triad can produce various results in the workplace, depending on how high or low each characteristic presents in a person. It is important that we create structures that mitigate these behaviors from manifesting.

Essential question

How Does the Dark Triad Impact Your Workplace?


The three factors in the Dark Triad can produce various results in the workplace, depending on how high or low each characteristic presents in a person. It is important that we create structures that mitigate these behaviors from manifesting. But before we get into solutions, let’s get to the topic at hand.

In psychology, the dark triad comprises the personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. They are called “dark” because of their malevolent qualities.

Understanding the Dark Triad

While different researchers have different models and an array of differences in understanding each element, there are also areas of overlap.

Narcissism, named after the Greek myth of Narcissus, a man who fell in love with his reflection in a lake so much so that he wasted away at the banks, describes a person that is likely to harbor feelings of superiority driven by an inflated or grandiose sense of self; they have a dysfunctional need for excessive attention, have a propensity to engage in exploitative acts or behavior and lack empathy.

Psychopathy — like narcissism — has been defined and understood in many different ways in academia and pop culture. The most extensive model of understanding psychopathy has four dimensions: interpersonal manipulation, callous affect (lack of empathy & remorse), an erratic lifestyle that lends itself to impulsivity, sensation-seeking behavior, and anti-social tendencies.

Machiavellianism is defined by a clear tendency towards manipulation, believing it to be a necessary component to achieve one’s desired ends; this behavior is often accompanied by a lack of empathy, a greater acceptance of behaviors that would normally be described as immoral like lying or exploiting others, and lower levels of effect and a focus on pursuing one’s goals at the expense of others.

So, it is no secret that the Dark Triad’s maladaptive behaviors impact the workplace at all levels. Dark Triad traits are associated with less organizational citizenship behavior, or pro-social workplace behaviors like sharing of knowledge, communication, and feelings of belonging. A leader’s psychopathy has been found to have a damaging effect on their subordinates’ job satisfaction; Supervisors’ Machiavellianism was positively related to abusive supervision according to Wisse and Sleebos in 2016.

Long story short: dark triad personalities engage and infect the workplace with counterproductive work behavior that is destructive and weakens the social fabric of workplaces.

Where to Start

Examine your mindset

Examine your mindset related to certain positions and gauge what traits are necessary for success. For example, some positions may require a good amount of competitiveness. But be mindful of what is necessary and what is toxic as it relates to how people show up.

This just serves as an example, look at many positions and imagine the ideal candidate and do an exercise where you examine how do they show up ideally? how do they show up in overdrive?

Examine your behaviors

Look at what behaviors are rewarded in your workplace. Are you possibly encouraging narcissism or machiavellian behavior without realizing it? High-pressure pay structures such as that involve aspects like commissions can bring out Dark Triad traits, in addition to a lack of management skills like setting clear expectations. Organizationally, it is important that you model the behavior you want and have structures in place to counteract improper behavior.

Examine your systems and structures

How do you interview? You should seek out structured interview approaches so that you can root out the charisma and manipulation that many dark triads exhibit. You want to counteract the halo effect and focus on conducting competency-based interviews that of course have behavioral-based interview questions.

Who is getting promoted in your organization? This is a big one. Examine how promotions occur. Are they objective overall? Ensure that when promotions occur, they are based on the competencies that are necessary for success in the role they are going, not where they came from!


Understanding the Dark Triad


How can organizations identify and minimize the impact of traits such as those commonly found in the dark triad for the betterment of their organizational climate and culture?


Examine your mindset of what behavior are allowed to flourish in the workplace. As you examine the current climate, examine further at the systems and structure that exists throughout the organization. With support, work towards adjusting systems and ways of working to promote the behaviors that best support the organizational culture that you want.

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