The Pros and Cons of Having a Dark Side
Looking out for Number One can help you, but only to a point.
Posted Aug 20, 2014
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.
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.
Machiavellians are motivated to manipulate others, but they are not necessarily any more skilled at manipulation than anyone else is.
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.
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.