The Dark Triad of Personality: Derailment in Management

April 19, 2017 Richard Justenhoven
businessman in boxing gloves

What is the Dark Triad?

The term, the Dark Triad has been widely used in recent years when discussing management derailment and looking at why managers fail.

So what is the Dark Triad?

The model was firstly introduced by Paulhus and Williams (2002) and consists of the three personality traits Narcissism, Machiavellianism and subclinical Psychopathy. Although these terms are well known in the context of clinical disorders, the Dark Triad treats these traits as ‘normal’ personality characteristics.

Narcissists show behaviours of grandiosity, entitlement, dominance and superiority. Machiavellianism is marked by manipulation and cynical behaviour and psychopaths tend to be high impulsive and thrill-seeking as well as having low empathy and anxiety. All three traits correlate with each other to a certain level, yet they can still be seen as distinct characteristics.

All three show a common character in regard of socially malevolent behaviour as well as tendencies towards self-promotion, emotional coldness and aggressiveness. Despite having a major influence on counter-productive work behaviour (O’Boyle, Forsyth, Banks & McDaniel, 2011), the Dark Triad also affects leadership styles. In this context, the term of ‘Derailment’ is often used. But what does it mean?

Derailment refers to manager failure that is caused by certain actions or inaction that leads to disastrous decisions and failures. This can be due to several reasons in the manager’s personality, however, how feedback is given and received plays a major role. Managers who score high in the Dark Triad tend to lose sight of reality and are stubborn and stand by all their decisions. Because of their aggressive and socially malevolent nature, they neither accept feedback, nor give much feedback. This leads to a lack of information when it comes to important management decisions.

Studies have shown that those scoring above average on the Dark Triad personality traits can be found in management positions. It is not clear whether these traits help individuals to get to these positions initially, or if they are developed because of the environment surrounding these roles. In any respect, rather than trying to avoid having people with such characteristics in these positions, it may be helpful instead to introduce formal and informal feedback as well as control systems so that a continuous information exchange can take place. Not only will this help to avoid any derailment situation but also help to reach better management decisions.

Take note and take action so you avoid derailment in your organisation.

By the way… in a validity study undertaken by us, correlations between the Dark Triad and our shapes Dimensions have been shown. All three traits correlated negatively with ‘agreeable’. Also, Narcissist scored higher on leadership relevant dimensions such as ‘directing’ and ‘persuasive’. For more details about this, contact us.


O’Boyle Jr, E. H., Forsyth, D. R., Banks, G. C., & McDaniel, M. A. (2012). A meta-analysis of the dark triad and work behavior: A social exchange perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology97(3), 557.

Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of research in personality36(6), 556-563.

Spain, S. M., Harms, P., & LeBreton, J. M. (2014). The dark side of personality at work. Journal of Organizational Behavior35(S1), 41-60.

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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