Tempted by the dark side? Job candidates with ‘Dark Triad’ personality traits may seem perfect for the role, but if you let them fool you, they’ll rule you. Contributor Espen Skorstad, Chief Commercial Officer for Europe at international talent measurement and assessment specialist Aon's Assessment Solutions.
Are Dark Triad leaders ruling your organisation? In many cases, the answer is yes. The Dark Triad is an umbrella term that encompasses three specific personality traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy. Astonishingly, studies show that high levels of these traits are evident in the CEOs and senior management teams of today’s organisations.
Machiavellianism is a willingness to manipulate and exploit others, while focusing on your own agenda. It stems from Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli’s political guide The Prince, published in 1532. People who score highly on this personality trait are unprincipled, self-interested and cynical. Narcissism is characterised by entitlement, superiority, pride, disdain for others and self-enhancement. High scorers on this trait are egotists who seek to influence and dominate others through their appearance and charisma.
Psychopathy is the most malicious of the three. It is characterised by a lack of empathy, impulsive behaviour, selfishness and an absence of conscience. Those who score highly on this trait are antagonistic, have little regard for the emotions of others and are prone to bullying. Each of these is a distinct trait – and we all have elements of them in our personality. However, in 2002, researchers Paulhus and Williams highlighted that these traits can overlap and combine to form a ‘dark personality’. Individuals who score highly in all three of these traits are more likely to engage in deviant or counterproductive behaviour in organisations.
How do these people achieve prominence?
In the same way that historical Dark Triad leaders such as Hitler and Napoleon rose to power, individuals with these traits often self-sponsor their way into positions of leadership. They manage to fool the recruiters who appoint them – and charm the executives who promote them – because they come across as compelling and competent extroverts and they excel at interviews.
Their Dark Triad traits help them to stand out. Machiavellians are convincing strategic thinkers and they’ll lie when they’re interviewed for a new role; Narcissists like to show off their strengths and they’re adept at creating a positive first impression; Psychopaths can also appear relaxed in interviews, because they have such little concern for the opinions of others.
These three traits can bring both success and failure for leaders. Machiavellians are good negotiators and they excel at forming political alliances. Narcissists tend to favour big, bold actions that grab attention. Psychopaths think differently, which means they can be creative. They’re also unafraid to take extreme risks. All of these qualities can benefit an organisation in the short-term. But longer-term, the consequences can be highly damaging.
No business can thrive if it has insensitive, volatile, manipulative and abusive leaders who ignore the consequences of their actions and who use others to their own advantage. That’s bad enough in itself but it also creates an unpleasant and detrimental culture, as it sets a poisonous example which can cascade down and affect the entire organisation.
HR, talent and recruitment teams need to be aware of the Dark Triad traits – and you should know that they’re more prevalent in men than in women. Because an individual’s personality is difficult to change, if someone has high levels of these traits, it will not be easy to coach or train them to behave differently. Here, though, are seven positive steps that you can take, to prevent Dark Triad leaders from ruining your organisation:
1. Gauge the level of risk for your circumstances. Some jobs will require aspects of Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy, so you need to consider the nature of your work and the context of your organisation. The Dark Triad traits may be desirable at low levels but high scorers in these traits should not be appointed. Be realistic about exactly what levels of these traits are relevant for your roles.
2. Conduct a thorough job analysis and ‘look for the opposite’. Look broadly at the holistic requirements for every role and identify the competencies, personality, abilities, knowledge, experience, attitude and values as well as the optimal behaviours that are required. Also, look for the opposite of dark triad traits, namely integrity, empathy and teamwork capabilities.
3. Use multiple assessments. Screen your applicants with a personality questionnaire, a values questionnaire and a motivation assessment. Choose reputable tests that focus on the job requirements and are not easily faked. The right assessments will measure your required competencies, identify the Dark Triad traits and predict whether individuals will suit the role and fit the values of your organisation. The best personality questionnaires will reveal the person-job fit for each individual and will also give you a score for each desired competency.
4. Conduct structured interviews. A Dark Triad candidate will often try to outsmart an interviewer, because they think they are superior. In some cases they even want to take charge in the interview situation. These candidates might be charismatic and they may shine in one or two areas of an interview, creating a ‘halo effect’ which can fool an unsuspecting interviewer into appointing them. To avoid these traps, hiring managers should be trained to conduct thorough, competency-based interviews that cover all aspects of the role and enable them to keep control of the dialogue. Some personality questionnaires generate an interview guide which provides hiring managers with probing questions that they can ask to check and verify the suitability of each candidate’s competencies and behaviours. This helps to counter any ‘outsmarting’ behaviour.
5. Monitor those ‘on the verge’. If you create a ‘cut-off level’ for the Dark Triad traits, there will inevitably be individuals who will score just under that level. If you employ these individuals, you’ll need to pay particular attention to them. For example, it would be unwise to put a group of them together into a single team.
6. Recognise and reward ethical behaviour and good citizenship. Promote the values of your employer brand and encourage and reward the right behaviours. Review the way your organisation monitors and manages performance, to ensure that you’re focusing on objective measures and on ethical and interpersonal behaviour. Dark Triad individuals can flourish if your organisation ignores their moral shortcomings.
7. Promote the right people, with the right competencies. In every succession planning scenario, look holistically at the requirements of the role and ensure you appoint someone whose attributes match those needs completely. With a greater awareness of the Machiavellian, narcissist and psychopath traits – and by following these seven steps – you can make better selection decisions and prevent your organisation from becoming infested with Dark Triad overlords.
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