What is a dark personality trait

Striving for power far from ethics: The “dark triad” in executives and the consequences for organizations


The dark triad - consisting of narcissism, Machiavellian and psychopathy - is linked to highly unethical behaviors. Accordingly, people with high scores can lead to many negative consequences for an organization. This article takes a closer look at the dark triad and its risks and emphasizes the relevance of an ethical corporate culture, which should start with the filling of the vacancy. The article provides an overview of current research results on the dark triad in organizations and supplements this with interviews from science and business.


The dark triad — narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy — is related to unethical behavior. Therefore, people high in the dark triad traits can lead to disastrous consequences for an organization. In this article, we shed light on the dark triad and its risks as well as highlight the importance of establishing an ethical organizational culture, which should include select-out recruitment criteria. We give an overview of current research on the dark triad within organizations and complement this overview with interviews.


Through various articles in the media, “narcissism” is already a term for many people (some examples: Faller 2019; Machac 2019; Szavarsky and Steinkogler 2019). However, narcissism - here as subclinical, i.e. H. understood as not clinically conspicuous - just one of three personality accents that are collectively referred to in science as the "dark triad". Other parts of the triad are Machiavellianism and subclinical psychopathy. These three are distinguishable but strongly interrelated constructs associated with unethical, immoral, and self-centered behavior (Lee and Ashton 2005; Paulhus and Williams 2002). In addition, people with high tendencies in the dark triad all show low scores on the personality trait “compatibility” - that is, courtesy, flexibility, trustworthiness, willingness to cooperate and tolerance (Barrick and Mount 1991; Lee and Ashton 2005). So the three have a common dark core that Moshagen et al. (2018) also as D factor What is referred to is: striving for one's own advantage - also “going over dead bodies” (cf. Bertl et al. 2017). In other words, it is very likely that a person not only exhibits high narcissistic tendencies, but that this can also be accompanied by Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Although the three constructs have a shared core, they differ in their properties (see Fig. 1).

People with narcissistic tendencies strive for admiration and are hypersensitive and defensive with regard to their self-image (Mathieu and St-Jean 2013; Morf and Rhodewalt 2001; Paulhus and Williams 2002; Rosenthal and Pittinsky 2006). It is very important to these people how others see them, which distinguishes narcissism from the so-called malicious two - Machiavellian and subclinical psychopathy (Kowalski et al. 2018; Rauthmann and Kolar 2012). People with Machiavellian tendencies seek power, not admiration - to gain more power they use strategies that may seem like they care about the opinion of others, but this is only one strategy (Christie and Geis 1970; Paulhus and Williams 2002). Even people with psychopathic tendencies do not think much of the opinion of others and would use any strategy without feelings of guilt, remorse or empathy for a little thrill (Babiak and Hare 2006): While a person with high narcissistic tendencies wants to save face in front of others, people show with high psychopathic tendencies open their indifference to a suffering person (Rauthmann 2011; Lee and Gibbons 2017). Because of their pursuit of thrills, people with high psychopathic tendencies are impulsive and willing to take risks (Akhtar et al. 2013; Jones and Paulhus 2011; Paulhus and Williams 2002). In summary, the dark triad consists of narcissism, Machiavellian and psychopathy - three constructs with a common unethical core. From an organizational perspective, this leads to the question of which professional activities people have with high levels of development and what consequences this has.

The rise of the dark triad in organizations

Previous research has shown that people with high tendencies towards the dark triad find it easier to get into management positions (Babiak et al. 2010; Brunell et al. 2008; Grijalva et al. 2014; Harms et al. 2011; Landay et al. 2019; Wisse and Sleebos 2017). Their manipulative and often unethical strategies help them to sell their talent positively (Back et al. 2010) and to keep the job they are looking for (Jonason et al. 2015; Kowalski et al. 2018; Paulhus et al. 2013). In addition, people with high narcissistic tendencies can come across as charismatic, as they seem very confident in themselves and do everything to be admired (Rogoza and Fatfouta 2020). In an interview with Jiménez (2015), Kanning says: "When in doubt, it is better to fill an important position in the company with an applicant who is a bit too self-confident and dominant than with one who has too little of both."

Another ability of people with high levels of the dark triad is to understand the emotions and thoughts of others well, even if they do not empathize and leave them cold - they can analyze the emotions and thoughts of the other person very well and thus well manipulate (Turner et al. 2019). Becker (2011) even claims that a certain degree of expression of the dark triad is desirable in a manager: “Hardly anyone in a management position can completely break free from the dark triad. A certain degree of these characteristics seems to enable managers to fulfill their role properly in the first place. ”The latest research shows that people with higher tendencies of the dark triad not only achieve a leadership position more easily, but also rise higher and higher in the management level (Schiemann et al. 2020a). Schiemann et al. (2020a) explain this with the strong motivation for power and admiration that drives these persons to reach ever higher, more powerful and more respected positions. The question now arises whether this ascent has positive or rather negative consequences for an organization.

Negative consequences for the organization

Even if some strategies of these people can be useful to a company to a certain extent - e. B. being able to present oneself well and be charismatic (narcissism), acting strategically and power-maximizing (Machiavellianism) or daring to take high risks (psychopathy) - the dark triad also harbors its danger: Previous research has already shown that high risks Characteristics of such personality tendencies can have very negative consequences for a company. Individuals with high tendencies towards the dark triad lead to many different difficulties in interpersonal relationships and harm the well-being of everyone in an organization (DeShong et al. 2015; Southard et al. 2015; Volmer et al. 2016).

So overestimate z. B. Narcissists mostly use their skills (Ames and Kammrath 2004), make decisions based on impression motivation (Van Dijk and De Cremer 2006) and quickly feel attacked (Back et al. 2013). This narcissistic behavior has negative effects not only on interpersonal relationships in the company (Blair et al. 2008), but also on the company's performance (Chatterjee and Hambrick 2007; Judge et al. 2006). The employees of narcissistic executives in particular suffer from this: They feel emotionally exhausted, tense and depressed, can no longer work so productively and see no options for action (Ellen et al. 2017). Narcissism is still the most positively rated of the three constructs ("malicious two"; Kowalski et al. 2018).

People with Machiavellian tendencies also cause damage in organizations through their power-oriented, reckless and selfish behavior (Paulhus and Williams 2002). For example, unethical strategies are applied (Jonason et al. 2015) and behavior is shown that goes against the interests of the company and its employees - such as B. Deviance, revenge and aggression (Machiavellianism and counterproductive work behavior; O’Boyle et al. 2012).

People with psychopathic tendencies, whose employees have to cope with the obviously antisocial behavior such as lying, exposing or harming, behave just as differently (Babiak et al. 2010). This leads to bullying, unfair leadership behavior, difficult personal relationships and a wide variety of conflict situations (Boddy 2011; Scherer et al. 2013). Sexual harassment is also linked to all three factors of the dark triad and, in the case of people with psychopathic tendencies, also has the dimension of blaming the victim for it (Brewer et al. 2019).

However, if a person with high levels of the dark triad sits at the head of the company, this can lead to even more serious consequences than just poor company performance (e.g. Patel and Cooper 2014; Wales et al. 2013). For example, companies with more narcissistic CEOs have a more extreme drive for performance than culture and a higher turnover rate - two factors that extremely worsen the overall organizational climate (Chatterjee and Hambrick 2007). It was also found that companies with more narcissistic CEOs are sued more often, which degrades the company's external reputation and can also damage the work atmosphere (O’Reilly et al. 2018). Wisse and Sleebos (2016) have also found that more power leads to more hostile leadership behavior and thus intensifies the negative consequences for employees ("abusive supervision"; Wisse and Sleebos 2016). This means that people in higher management levels live out their negative side even more and thus the employees suffer even more.

Difficulties in personnel development of those with high tendencies of the dark triad

One possible intervention would be personnel development measures that work on the attitudes and values ​​of people with high tendencies towards personality accentuation with regard to the dark triad. Personnel development measures in the company serve to further develop the employees as an important chapter in order to improve and / or promote their skills (Neuberger 2016). This concerns measures such as training or coaching, which are responsible for promoting not only professional but also social and ethical skills (Garavan and McGuire 2010).

Since there is little research into this task of personnel development, it is worth taking a look in advance at psychotherapy research, which, like coaching, is about individual support, but even more about healing (Crowe 2017). Patients with narcissistic and psychopathic personality traits are considered to be particularly challenging here, not only because of their lack of willingness to change and values, but also because of their interpersonal relationships, which makes a sustainable psychotherapeutic working alliance difficult (Bender 2005; Caligor et al. 2015; Olver and Wong 2015 ; Salekin 2002). Machiavellianism is not represented as a separate construct in the clinical area. But what about in the sub-clinical area? There is not much research on this, but it seems that leaders with narcissistic tendencies cannot easily change direction in which they pay less attention to themselves and more to others (Peterson et al. 2012).

Change seems difficult - maybe personnel development measures can help? Harms et al. (2011) looked at precisely this space of opportunity and found that people with signs of a subclinical dark triad showed no change in their leadership or individual development even over time and across personnel development measures. Since coaching is a very individual personnel development measure (Greif 2008), this could perhaps be where the greatest potential for change lies.

Initial coaching studies reveal that there are coaching clients with high levels of the dark triad and that these pose a massive challenge to the coaches: Coaches get into a state of fear, inhibition and distress, which has a negative effect on coaching success (Schiemann et al. 2020b). In coaching, coaches behave the same way towards a client with high levels of the dark triad compared to a neutral client, but report feelings of fear and less felt empathy behind the ostensibly adapted facade, and they experience themselves as less authentic (Schiemann et al. 2020c ).

In a short interview with the consultant, coach and trainer Dr. It becomes clear to Karin von Schumann what reality looks like with these clients. Miss Dr. Like many other trainers, consultants and coaches, von Schumann has already gained experience with clients who have subclinically high levels of the dark triad. She reports:

At the beginning it is often not possible to recognize the problem. At least in my experience, these clients do not come into coaching on their own initiative, but because they were advised to take the next step in their careers, or they come because of negative feedback from their environment. A certain skepticism or reticence therefore seems quite understandable at the beginning. However, two things in particular become apparent very quickly in coaching: The clients absolutely cannot accept any critical feedback - not even in homeopathic doses. And they are not ready or able to self-reflect, sometimes find the invitation to do so as an imposition - after all, the others are the problem! In my experience, the potential for change is very low and you can hardly be effective as a coach.

Prof. Dr. Dieter Frey, who works as a consultant, coach and trainer and heads the LMU Center for Leadership and People Management in Munich, has had similar experiences:

I had a coaching session with a CEO of a DAX company who showed both high narcissistic and high Machiavellian tendencies. I asked him about problems in his organization and other board members that made him responsible for failures. He was totally defensive, saw no guilt at all, also claimed that he had never actually made a wrong decision, but in retrospect various situations would have presented themselves differently than he could foresee. He does not attribute the fact that things went sub-optimally to his behavior, but to wrong decisions at subordinate levels. He had an absolutely rigid attitude about how to interpret reality. Even in retrospect, there was only one view of reality, namely his. He found no will to change.

The interviews underline the already mentioned difficulty of change in people with high levels of the dark triad, as they see the change less in themselves and more in others. Coaches also report this resistance and the attribution of blame in the qualitative data analysis; In addition, difficulties are described here that do not affect the content but the interaction with the coach: These difficulties included manipulative tactics, a strong search for attention, lack of access to oneself, high levels of mistrust or power games (Schiemann et al. 2020b) . In summary, it is difficult to start with the person himself. That is why it is important to have an ethically responsible corporate culture.

The importance of an ethical corporate culture

When it comes to the dark triad, according to Wisse and Sleebos (2017), the manager as an actor and the employees who suffer from it must not be viewed alone, especially since previous studies show how powerless the "victims" are. such leaders are. Although these victims can buffer the negative effects with a high self-esteem, they cannot avoid the effects in any way (Barelds et al. 2018; Ellen et al. 2017). Often the only solution that remains for them is to leave the company (e.g. Ellen et al. 2017). Therefore, Wisse and Sleebos (2017) provide the Dark triad of the company in which the negative effects of the dark triad are attributed to three factors:

  1. 1.

    Companiesthat allows such unethical behavior,

  2. 2.

    Manager / person with a high tendency towards the dark triad as an actor,

  3. 3.

    Victimwho put up with the behavior.

This group of three shows that the company also has a responsibility to allow or even support such behavior (ibid.). It is also about the non-approval of unethical behavior on the part of the company - i.e. to what extent manipulative or other unethical strategies are tolerated or even desired in a company. Prof.Frey: "Anyone who allows unethical behavior in the company and thus has short-term advantages on the market may be able to eat well, but no longer sleep well." It is therefore important as a company not only to strive for excellence, performance, numbers and profit, but also for an ethically responsible corporate culture.

An ethical corporate culture means being aware of the overall responsibility of all interest groups and ethical values ​​and acting morally - on the basis of the needs and interests of all interest groups and not just your own (Frey et al. 2010). Research to date shows that a shared ethical and ethically just culture of values ​​leads to more ethical behavior, less misconduct and a more positive attitude towards the company (Demirtas 2015; Demirtas and Akdogan 2014; Lu and Lin 2014; Mayer et al. 2010; Neubert et al . 2013; Shin et al. 2014; Wu et al. 2014). Even people with high levels of the dark triad show less counterproductive work behavior if they feel valued by the organization and have the impression that the company is concerned about their well-being (Palmer et al. 2017).

In addition, Prof. Frey emphasizes the economic advantages of an ethically responsible corporate culture: “In the long run, ethical behavior pays off commercially. You can see that in the whole diesel affair, where you had short-term economic advantages, but it was also a milkmaid bill economically. These experiences, which can ultimately damage the reputation of a company in the long run, can be transferred to any unethical behavior. ”Resick et al. Show that an ethically responsible corporate culture actually has positive consequences for the excellence of a company. (2011): Ethical leadership improves work morale and cooperation and increases motivation and optimism among employees. Ko et al. (2017) found in a meta-analysis: Ethical leadership behavior not only promotes satisfaction, well-being and motivation of employees, but also has a positive effect on the company's financial performance.

Establishing an ethical corporate culture, however, is not easy, especially for large companies, because it involves changing norms, structures and routines (Wu et al. 2014). Because it's not enough to communicate ethical values ​​- it's about values ​​too Life: In addition to clear guidelines, it is therefore important to find multipliers from top management who exemplify these guidelines (Frey et al. 2010; Mayer et al. 2009; Ruiz et al. 2011). A strong internal audit can also help to make unethical behavior more transparent (Arel et al. 2012).

Such an ethical corporate culture also means not only when filling the vacancy select-in Criteria (what must a candidate bring) to be observed, but also select-out Criteria (what a candidate may not have) to be taken into account (Wisse and Sleebos 2017). The previous focus on select-in staffing is also criticized by Hell and Schneider (2016): “What is the dark side of personality? Conscientious, sociable, able to work in a team - job profiles focus on the positive characteristics of a person. ”In a dialogue with Kanning, Jiménez (2015, p. 1) also indicates that the problem is worsening for positions at higher hierarchical levels:

Once the people of the dark triad have landed in a leadership position, they stay there or rise even further. While the personnel selection on the lower floors of the company still looks closely at who to get, on the higher floors one is much less critical. "The higher the position and the more responsibility a person has in the job, the closer you should actually take a look at who they are," says Kanning. These people ultimately shaped the company's culture. “But you don't - on the contrary. The higher the position to be filled, the more negligent the recruiting ”.

In summary, it can be said that a lived ethical corporate culture with ethical guidelines, audits, multipliers from top management and select-out criteria, especially in higher internal positions, can reduce the negative consequences of the dark triad. So we move away from the striving of the individual, far from ethics, towards the striving for community with ethics.


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