Exploring the dark side of leadership

Written by
Changeboard Team

20 Jul 2017

20 Jul 2017 • by Changeboard Team

Personality has a real impact on organisational outcomes. Bad managers lead to toxic environments that kill engagement and undermine productivity. Managerial failure is easy to identify, but the ‘why’ is much more difficult to uncover. 

However, thanks to organisational research from psychologists, we can identify these traits early on and either develop leaders to manage their ‘dark side’, or simply find another place for them (outside of the organisation).

Dark-side traits are exhibited when a strength is overused to the point that it becomes a weakness – for example, when persuasiveness becomes manipulation – or when stress, boredom or fatigue leads to certain – sometimes extreme – behaviours that can derail a career. While plenty of research has focused on ‘bright-side’ traits such as engagement and motivation, it’s important to recognise the other end of the spectrum. 

We asked ask Dr Robert Hogan, founder of Hogan Assessments, about the ‘dark side’ of personality, a term he coined to describe extreme traits after reading an article about psychological phenomena that seemed as “bizarre as the dark side of the moon”. His assessment tool uses 11 personality scales to help leaders recognise shortcomings, maximise strengths, and build successful teams, measuring tendencies when under stress.

Skye Trubov (ST): What is the ‘dark side’ all about?

Robert Hogan (RH): The dark side is about failed managers: why they fail, how they create alienation and destroy engagement and companies’ productivity. There are significant consequences associated with the dark side and we break it down into three main factors: the first is intimidation and bullying; the second has to do with charm and seduction; and the third is something like false compliance and antisocial behaviour. 

ST: Why is it important?

RH: There are real financial consequences that show the impact of bad leadership. When I started looking into this concept 20 years ago, I did a bit of research to conclude that the incompetency of management in the corporate world is 60-70%. This both aligns with the average rate of disengagement, which is about 75% based on surveys, and also greatly contradicts the professional estimates of 3% to 5%. So what we need to focus on is a) what is the base rate in organisations, and b) what causes that?

ST: Are there particular industries or fields in which managers tend to demonstrate these dark traits?

RH: Different roles might draw people who ‘specialise’ in different areas of the dark side. You cannot have a military career without high scores on the ‘dutiful’ and ‘diligent’ scales [two out of the eleven sub-scales measured in the Hogan Development Survey]. You can’t have a career in sales without high scores on ‘colourful’ and ‘mischievous’, and you can’t have a career in banking without high scores on the ‘sceptical’, ‘cautious’ and ‘reserved’ scales.  

ST: To what extent can we attribute a manager’s behaviour to circumstance and environment?

RH: I’m an old-school Freudian and I think early experiences really matter and that all these dark- side characteristics are learned patterns of behaviour. These features can provide positive feedback which reinforce these behaviours, even into adulthood. I call these short-term wins and long-term losses. 

ST: How do you see personality assessment changing in the next 5 years?

RH: I think improvement will come as a result of regular progressive advancements but change will come in the form of delivering an assessment on a mobile phone or doing personality assessment by reading facebook, for example. So it will change in superficial and glittery ways and it will improve systematically and incrementally, one item at a time.

ST: How do you see all this influencing HR and what is HR’s responsibility?

RH: An essential point for understanding leadership is to manage  talent in a way that leads to organisational productivity. The data show clearly that every financial outcome of an organisation can be tied to engagement, and poor leadership destroys engagement and flexibility. If I were in HR, that would be my sole focus. I would implore HR people to pay attention to data as opposed to tracking fads. 

ST: Finally, what are your dark side traits?

RH: Let’s just say that I really struggled writing the ‘bold’ or ‘narcissism’ items. The ‘sceptical’ and ‘paranoid’ items I wrote in one sitting and didn’t have to revise a single item.

Dr Hogan will be a keynote speaker at the Association for Business Psychology Conference, in London, 12-13 October, which this year is themed around ‘The Dark Side’.