Why bad guys win at work?

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“Not all psychopaths are in prison – some are in the board room,” Robert Hare famously said during his aptly titled lecture, The Predators Among Us.

Psychopathy is one of three “dark triadtraits, the other two being narcissism and Machiavellianism. It should be noted that, unlike clinical personality traits, these traits are normally distributed in the population – e.g., you can score low, average or high – and perfectly indicative of normal functioning. In other words, just because you score high doesn’t mean that you have problems, either at work or in your personal life. And despite the antisocial implications of the dark triad, recent research has highlighted a wide range of career-related benefits for these personality characteristics.

Psychopathic individuals are generally more dishonest, egocentric, reckless, and cruel than the population average. Machiavellianism is somewhat more related to superficial charm, interpersonal manipulation, deceit, ruthlessness, and impulsivity. People who score highly on this trait are morally feeble and likely to endorse the idea that “the end justifies the means” or agree that “it is hard to get ahead without cutting corners here and there.” Narcissism relates to unrealistic feelings of grandiosity, an inflated – though often unstable and insecure – sense of self-worth, and a selfish sense of entitlement coupled with little consideration for others. As the term, and the legend of Narcissus, suggests, narcissistic individuals are so self-indulged that they may end up drowning in their own self-love – this makes it harder for them to focus on others. Narcissists are often charming, and charisma is often the socially desirable side of narcissism: Silvio Berlusconi, Jim Jones, and Steve Jobs personified this.

In a recent study on representative German businesses, narcissism was positively linked to salary, while Machiavellianism was positively linked to leadership level and career satisfaction. These associations were still significant even after controlling for the effects of demographics, job tenure, organization size, and hours worked.

Previously, an impressive 15-year longitudinal study found that individuals with psychopathic and narcissistic characteristics gravitated towards the top of the organizational hierarchy and had higher levels of financial attainment. In line with those findings, according to some estimates, the base rate for clinical levels of psychopathy is three times higher among corporate boards than in the overall population. This is also consistent with earlier conceptualizations of psychopathy among businessmen. In his classic 1940’s book The Mask of Sanity, Hervey Cleckley noted that the psychopathic businessman works industriously and appears rather normal, except for his periodic sprees of “marital infidelity, callousness, wild drinking, and risk-taking”.

So why do these bad guys win?

In part, because there is clearly a bright side to their dark side. As found in a study examining the overlap between positive and negative personality characteristics, extraversion, openness to new experience, curiosity, and self-esteem are generally higher among dark triad personalities. In addition, dark triad traits tend to enhance competitiveness, if only by inhibiting cooperation and altruistic behaviours at work. In addition, studies have shown that psychopathic and Machiavellian tendencies facilitate both the seduction and intimidation tactics that frighten potential competitors and captivate bosses. This explains why individuals with these personality characteristics are often great actors, as well as succeeding in (short-term) sexual relationships.

Yet it is important to understand that all these individual gains come at the expense of the group.

Although there is clearly an adaptive element to the dark triad – which explains why bad guys often win – their success comes at a price, and that price is paid by the the organization. In evolutionary terms, dark triad personality characteristics constitute the essence of the freeriding. And the more polluted or contaminated the environment – in a political sense – the more these parasitic personalities will thrive.

Not surprisingly, a number of studies have linked the dark triad to higher incidents of bullying. Moreover, meta-analytic studies have shown significant associations between the dark triad and counterproductive work behaviours (theft, absenteeism, turnover, sabotage, etc.). In an impressive analysis of all the scientific studies published between 1951 and 2011, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy were all positively linked with counterproductive work behaviours and poor organizational citizenship, and Machiavellianism and psychopathy were also negatively linked to actual job performance (as opposed to career success). As reviews have highlighted, “Ponzi schemes, internet fraud, embezzlement, insider trading, corruption, and malfeasance” can all be attributed to dark triad personality traits.

But as the saying goes, everything is better in moderation (except of course moderation). For example, studies have shown that an intermediate – rather than low – level of Machiavellianism predicts the highest level of organisational citizenship, perhaps because Machiavellian individuals are politically savvy and good at networking and managing upwards. In another study that examined military leadership, the best leaders displayed the bright-side features of narcissism while inhibiting its dark-side traits: they were high in egotism and self-esteem but low in manipulativeness and impression management.

So perhaps one may think about dark-side tendencies as overused strengths – tendencies that are fairly adaptive and conducive of short-term success, but may nonetheless lead to problems in the long term, especially if one is not aware of them. That is, the dark side represents the toxic assets of our personality. You can certainly turn them into career weapons, but the group will generally lose the more you win. Furthermore, when the primary goal is to ensure that a group or organization outperforms its rivals, it will be generally advantageous to minimize the incidence of dark triad leaders. Personality is an important career lubricant, but dark-triad traits are effective at the individual rather than group level.


  • aptly – suitable for a particular situation – trafnie
  • dark triad – link
  • trait – a quality, good or bad, in someone’s character – cecha
  • Machiavellianism – link
  • be indicative of sth – to be a sign that something exists, is true, or is likely to happen – wskazywać na coś, być przejawem czegoś
  • reckless – doing something dangerous and not caring about what might happen – lekkomyślny, brawurowy
  • superficial – only on the surface of something – powierzchowny
  • deceit – when someone tries to make someone believe something that is not true – oszusto
  • ruthlessness – not caring if you hurt or upset other people when you try to get what you want – bezwzględność
  • feeble – extremely weak – słaby
  • to endorse – to say publicly that you support a person or action – popierać
  • grandiose – large or detailed and made to appear important, often in an unnecessary and annoying way – ambitny, wielki
  • inflated – inflated prices, costs, numbers, etc are higher than they should be – zawyżony
  • entitlement – when you have the right to do or have something – uprawnienie, prawo
  • Silvio Berlusconi – link
  • Jim Jones – link
  • Steve Jobs – link
  • tenure – the period of time when someone has an important job – kadencja, urzędowanie
  • longitudinal – longitudinal research is done on people or groups over a long period of time – długookresowy
  • gravitate to/towards sth/sb – to be attracted to something or someone, or to move in the direction of something or someone – ciążyć ku czemuś/komuś
  • attainment – when you achieve something – osiągnięcie
  • spree – a short period when someone does a lot of shopping/spending, etc – szaleństwo zakupów/wydatków itp.
  • callousness – cruel and not caring about other people – bezduszność
  • overlap – if two subjects or activities overlap, they are the same in some way – zbieżność, pokrywanie się
  • self-esteem – confidence in yourself and a belief in your qualities and abilities – poczucie własnej wartości
  • to inhibit – to make it more difficult for someone to do something – powstrzymywać
  • to facilitate – to make something possible or easier – umożliwiać, ułatwiać
  • to intimidate – to intentionally frighten someone, especially so that they will do what you want – zastraszyć
  • intimidation – zastraszenie, szantaż
  • to captivate – to interest or attract someone very much – urzekać
  • gain – when you get something useful or positive – zysk
  • to contaminate – to make something dirty or poisonous – zanieczyszczać, skazić
  • parasite – a lazy person who expects other people to give them money and food – pasożyt
    parasitic – pasożytniczy
  • thrive – to grow very well, or to become very healthy or successful – kwitnąć, dobrze się rozwijać
  • to bully – to intentionally frighten someone who is smaller or weaker than you – znęcać się nad, zmuszać
    bullying – znęcanie się
  • counterproductive – having the opposite effect from the one you want – destrukcyjny, przynoszący efekty odwrotne do zamierzonych
  • absenteeism – when someone is often absent from work or school – absencja
  • turnover – the rate at which workers leave an organization and new workers join it – fluktuacja kadrowa
  • to embezzle – to steal money that belongs to the company or organization that you work for – zdefraudować, sprzeniewierzyć
    embezzlement – defraudacja, sprzeniewierzenie
  • malfeasance – an example of dishonest and illegal behaviour, especially by a person in authority – nadużycie władzy
  • savvy – practical knowledge and ability – zmysł
  • fairly – more than average, but less than very – dosyć, dość
  • conducive – making something possible or likely to happen – sprzyjający
  • nonetheless – despite what has just been said – niemniej (jednak), pomimo to
  • rival – someone or something that is competing with another person or thing – rywal/ka

Źródło: Harvard Business Review

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