How ‘dark personalities’ affect your culture

Written by
Birgit Schyns, Professor in Organisational Behaviour, NEOMA Business School

05 Mar 2020

05 Mar 2020 • by Birgit Schyns, Professor in Organisational Behaviour, NEOMA Business School

HR practices might help to mitigate against ‘dark-triad behaviours’ and destructive leadership, writes Birgit Schyns, professor in organisational behaviour at NEOMA Business School.

Dark personalities are always present in the workplace, whether we realise it or not. By ‘dark personalities’ we tend to mean those who embody the ‘dark triad’ of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. In this context, we are referring not to personality disorders but to traits that are normally distributed within the population; everyone has them to a greater or lesser degree.

Spotting a colleague with a 'dark personality'

So, how can you spot a colleague with a ‘dark personality’? While narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy differ in many aspects, they share a common characteristic: putting oneself first at the expense of others. Typically, narcissists have an excessive belief in themselves and their skills (even in the face of evidence to the contrary), Machiavellians manipulate others to achieve their own goals, and psychopaths are callous and impulsive. 

Books such as Robert Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule, and Snakes in Suits by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, point to the risks organisations take when hiring psychopaths; the same is likely to be true of those with other dark traits. Destructive leadership can have a big impact on organisational culture. 

Within the workplace, you may notice that narcissists strive for leadership positions because they enjoy the accompanying status; psychopaths also relish power, which they can use to harm others. Machiavellians may be happy to remain in the background – as long as they are able to ‘pull the strings’. 

Influencing team and organisational culture

As leaders, those with dark personalities can influence the culture of a team or an entire organisation, causing direct harm through their mistreatment of others, while developing an environment of fear. In positions of authority, they may also make unethical behaviour appear acceptable, creating followers and encouraging others to imitate their ways. 

When HR does not intervene to stop this, it simply becomes the norm, which is why NEOMA is conducting research into HR practices that might help to mitigate against ‘dark-triad behaviours’ and destructive leadership.

This includes taking a critical look at HR practices that might be ‘double- edged swords’. For example, a strong emphasis on individual performance might encourage excessive rivalry between employees, fuelling exploitation and abuse and creating a toxic culture of competition. 

Exploring the role of HR

While this research is still in progress, it’s clear that we need to gain a clearer understanding of how destructive leaders and their leadership influence organisational culture — and the role of HR in addressing it. 

This is vital in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment; due to a lack of checks and balances, change seems to create a context that is particularly conducive to destructive leader behaviour. 

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