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How 3 Dark Personality Traits can Affect Job Performance

August 22, 2018

Personality measurement in pre-employment assessment is a commonly accepted practice. Over time, there are certain personality characteristics that have been consistently linked to higher levels of job performance, like conscientiousness, for example. However, there are other personality traits or characteristics that are often shown to negatively impact performance on the job. One such set of characteristics is referred to as the “dark triad.”

The dark triad of personality characteristics consists of:
  • Psychopathy – guiltlessness, low levels of empathy and responsibility, and high levels of egocentricity and impulsivity

  • Machiavellianism – ruthlessness, selfishness, and having a manipulative personality

  • Narcissism – feelings of personal entitlement and superiority, envy of success, and exploitative behavior

While each of these three traits have discrete elements that distinguish them from their dark triad counterparts, there is a substantial degree of overlap between them. The common behavioral sub-components that are found, at least to some degree, in each of the dark triad characteristics include self-promotion, aggression, manipulative and malevolent behavior, and emotional insouciance. Research has shown that these dark traits have been linked to a number of negative workplace outcomes including:

  • Poorer job performance

  • Increased counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs)

  • Fewer organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs)

  • Lower levels of ethical decision making

  • Greater likelihood to commit white collar crime

  • Negative perceptions from others

But are there times where these dark traits are actually beneficial for organizations? Some research suggests that the answer may be yes. A few studies have found that individuals who possess elevated levels of the traits listed above may actually have higher performance in some situations. It is hypothesized that the selfish and manipulative tendencies of these individuals may result in them being more likely to push for their way in negotiations, highlight their accomplishments, and manipulate others into supporting them, which in some contexts may be beneficial for performance. For example, one study found that those possessing high levels of these traits were more task-oriented (as opposed to relationship-oriented) in a problem-solving exercise which resulted in better performance on the task. Another study proposes that such positive outcomes only exist for individuals who possess moderate levels of these characteristics. Their results confirm this theory. Specifically, their results revealed that moderate levels of Machiavellianism seemed to be ideal for job performance. Those with lower levels of the trait still displayed adequate job performance, while those with the highest levels of Machiavellianism exhibited the lowest ratings of job performance. 

What does our research say?

In our research, we wanted to dig deeper into the relationship between the dark triad characteristics and job performance. As such, we conducted a study to determine if possessing moderate levels of these traits would be beneficial for individuals in a sales role. We hypothesized that due to the inherent nature of certain sales roles (e.g. commission-based pay, use of assertive or even aggressive sales tactics, and the need for negotiation/persuasion skills), individuals who possess moderate levels of these traits may experience higher levels of success on the job.

The results of this study did not support our hypothesis. We found that individuals with moderate levels of these traits actually had lower job performance than individuals with low levels of the dark triad traits. Our findings, along with the majority of the research indicating that increased levels of dark triad traits result in more negative outcomes than positive, bring us to the conclusion that you likely want to avoid selecting psychopathic, Machiavellian, and narcissistic individuals into your organization even in cases where it may theoretically make sense to do so.

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Alli Besl, Ph.D. Alli Besl, Ph.D. was a Research Consultant based in the Pittsburgh office of PSI. Her areas of expertise include: employee turnover, selection and recruitment.