The Dark Side of Work

When bad behavior has good results, and other paradoxes

The Pros and Cons of Having a Dark Side

Looking out for Number One can help you, but only to a point.


Dm_Cherry/Shutterstock
What is the “dark side” of personality?

This is not a clear question. My coauthors, Peter Harms and James LeBreton, and I discuss it, somewhat, in the review, “The Dark Side of Personality at Work," published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, by comparing it to the so-called "bright side" of personality, otherwise known as "the Big Five"—Extroversion, Neuroticism/Emotional Stability, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience. These are the major dimensions of normal interpersonal functioning—being outgoing and dominant; non-anxious, warm and approachable; hardworking and orderly; and interested in new ideas, values and experiences, respectively. We view the dark side as those characteristics that exist between the normal-range dimensions above and the highly problematic or dysfunctional personality disorders—that is, the dark side is more extreme than the aforementioned traits, but less intense than recognized personality disorders.           

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Pros and Cons

The dark side can be useful in some situations, but may undermine people in difficult or stressful circumstances. Consider, for example, being fairly paranoid. You may be suspicious of other people’s motives, and think that the world is relatively hostile: “I think Jason is gunning for my job"; "Angela may be trying to steal one of my clients.” Thoughts like these may, in general, help to protect you against legitimate power plays at work, but may also lead you to perceive threats where none exist.

Machiavelli
Machiavelli
Santi di Tito/public domain
In our review, we associate the dark side characteristic of Machiavellianism with paranoia, as described above. But this is probably an over simplification. People high in Machiavellianism—sometimes called high-Machs—are manipulators. They enjoy deceiving others, and they are willing to do almost anything to get their way. Consider Walter White in Breaking Bad: He would lie in almost any way, even giving the appearance of weakness to do so, if it suited his current needs. But he wasn’t always good at it! His big, elaborate deceptions were often effective, but his small, everyday lies could be laughably clumsy.

Machiavellians are motivated to manipulate others, but they are not necessarily any more skilled at manipulation than anyone else is.

Janus
Janus, the two-faced Roman god
Photograph by Loudon Dodd/Creative Commons
The second Dark Triad characteristic is called psychopathy, which has been called an “antisocial" personality. We need to be clear that this does not mean what people usually mean when they say antisocial, which is better classed as asocial (i.e., introverted, not wanting to be around others). What antisocial means in this context is the opposite of pro-social. That means that an antisocial person is generally actively harmful towards others—or perhaps just highly self-focused rather than other-focused. Psychopathy shares with Machiavellianism a lack of empathy, but is combined with impulsiveness. Psychopaths are risk-takers who do what they want in the moment. I’ve described psychopathy as probably the darkest of the Dark Triad. Psychopaths don’t experience guilt or shame to the degree that most people do—they experience lower levels of anxiety than average as well.

This could be an advantage if your work requires unpleasant actions. In the premiere episode of House of Cards, main character Frank Underwood sums this up well, saying: “Moments like this require someone like me. Someone who will act. Who will do what no one else has the courage to do. Someone who will do the unpleasant thing. The necessary thing.”

In business, the psychopath’s comparative lack of feelings of remorse could make it easier to fire people during downsizing, or even just for thrills, as network executive Jack Donaghy memorably demonstrated on 30 Rock:

  • Jack: Fire her. And don’t ever make me talk to a woman that old again.
  • Liz: I can’t fire Rosemary!
  • Jack: Sure you can. It’s easy. Observe: Jonathan, you’re fired.

Jack clearly has no remorse when it comes to firing people.

Narcissus
Narcissus admiring his own reflection
Caravaggio/public domain
The final Dark Triad tendency is narcissism, which is probably the best known of the three. Narcissists want to be the center of attention, and they’ll work to make sure that happens. They are relentless self-promoters. They will take almost any opportunity to portray an enhanced image of themselves to others. Narcissism has some obvious advantages—narcissists interview well; they are good at selling themselves and their ideas; and they can generate a lot of enthusiasm. Manager Michael Scott of The Office illustrates a bit of the narcissistic drive when he says, “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”

Peter Jonason and his colleagues have called the Dark Triad an agentic social style, and illustrate this concept through the example of James Bond, who achieves his goals through means including force, deceit, intimidation, persuasion, negotiation, and, of course, seduction. The researchers describe Bond as an extrovert, open to new experience, with high self-esteem, which partly explains why his otherwise exploitative approach to life mostly succeeds. The Dark Triad approach is typically successful in the short-term, but can lead to difficulties in long-standing relationships.

More Beneath the Surface

The Dark Triad is just the tip of the iceberg of the dark side of personality, however. My colleagues and I often use an assessment system called the Hogan Developmental Survey, which measures several additional personality characteristics. These are based on subclinical versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV Axis II personality disorders, and include, among others:

  • Histrionic personality (expressiveness, dramatic tendencies, desiring to be noticed)
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality (being careful, precise, and critical of others’ performance)
  • Borderline personality (moody and inconsistent, initial enthusiasm followed by disappointment).

The Hogan system uses delightfully euphemistic terms for these characteristics, calling the three listed above, for example, diligent, colorful, and excitable, respectively. The system is built around the theoretical proposition that dark-side personality characteristics are actively beneficial—if only to a point. Above that threshold, or under stress, they can become maladaptive.

For instance, a person with a high standing on obsessive-compulsive is likely to be perfectionistic, and to have high standards for themselves and others, which could describe someone as successful as, say, Steve Jobs. (I make no claim that Jobs actually was obsessive-compulsive, merely that there are many stories that highlight his high standards.) Under a tight deadline, however, such high standards could be detrimental, as in the old adage, “Don’t allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.”

 

In the coming days and weeks, I hope to explore these personality characteristics in more detail, and to provide information and guidance on their roles in the workplace

Seth Spain, Ph.D., an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Binghamton University, is an industrial/organizational psychologist who studies the dark side of work.

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