Leading in a Crisis: The Implications of Dark Triad Behaviours

We spoke with Dominik Schwarzinger, one author of the Dark Triad of Personality at Work (TOP), about the nature of the dark triad in leadership, the importance of ensuring we have the right personalities in positions of authority, and how dark traits can impact business performance and employee morale now, and as we begin returning to our places of work.

As you observe the Covid-19 situation and the global events of the past few weeks, what can the TOP tell us about how people might behave or respond?

I think this can be answered by looking at two aspects: what we have observed from governments and politicians during this time, and how the general public are behaving.

For the last few months we have been experiencing a global situation of high risk and insecurity, and it’s been interesting to witness the radical variations in leadership styles and how the traits that we have discerned can relate to the dark triad of personality. Wrong decisions could have very serious outcomes, yet responses from a selection of political leaders with a prominent ego and a disregard for risk have, as is widely-believed, led to tragedy. Other leaders have handled it with more success by communicating with experts, seeking advice from different stakeholders with regards to safety and the economy, and making decisions based on facts, science, and evidence rather than on ill-informed impulses. Now, we cannot compare the success rates of each country, especially when you take size, population, and economics into consideration, but there is a distinct correlation between leadership styles and both the ways governments addressed the pandemic and the response from the residents of their respective countries. 

If we now generalise this to a business setting for example - and not only in terms of a crisis – if a leader acts and makes important decisions independently of their team whilst ignoring important information, it’s unlikely that people will understand and support their decisions and the outcomes could be undesirable.

When you look at the people around us, you can also see a distinct divide. The majority of the public are acting out of altruism, they take care of the elderly, they wear masks on public transport and keep their distance from others. However, there is another group who say, ‘I don’t want this, it’s uncomfortable for me’ or ‘I don’t care what others think or about their safety’. This is typical dark triad behaviour, putting yourself first, being ruthless, disrespectful, and neglectful of others’ health and wellbeing. The latter group could make things especially hard for their colleagues when returning to work if they cause conflict or overlook safety regulations.

In what situations could looking at these dark triad traits be helpful?

Because the TOP focuses on measuring the work-related aspects of the original dark triad, it can provide us with more information on how well people will work together, and what the consequences might be if the wrong people are grouped in the same team or get that promotion. It is especially helpful for analysing leadership styles by offering insight into what we could expect from managers in a high-risk environment like a pandemic - or a business under threat in general - i.e. they may be pleasant when they are in control, but do they lose their temper when put under pressure? Are they charming, winning role-models in times of success, but choose not to stand by their team when something goes wrong? It is safe to say that it is best not to have people like this in leadership roles.

As the world changes, selection and development needs to change with it, and I think it’s very important to assess for dark triad traits in order to recruit people who don’t prioritise their ego, and who will better support their teams through new challenges and periods of uncertainty.

Can you break down the importance of some of the TOPs factors, namely self-centred work approach, enforcement-focused work attitude and uncommitted-impulsive work style?

We know that narcissism, the underlying construct of the self-centred work approach factor, is the most positive trait within the dark triad. It can be beneficial to have self-confidence, to be bold and to be sure of what we want, but it is crucial to understand the fine line between displaying enough of this trait, and when it is elevated. When it comes to the self-centred work approach you may be looking for someone who scores slightly above average for narcissism; someone who is a confident decision-maker but does not have an overwhelming need for authority, for example. However, a person who scores highly for uncommitted-impulsive work style could be problematic as they tend to be reckless, unreliable and are willing to lie and conceal information. It is very likely that a person who scores highly for this factor would not make a good leader or team member, nor contribute to team outcomes.

Finally, enforcement-focused work attitude has some more positive sub-factors, such as assertiveness, which can be good in specific situations. It is advantageous to be assertive in a negotiation but, like narcissism, it is helpful to know when it is too high. When combined with high scores for the other sub-factors such as unsentimentality and skepticism, assertiveness can result in serious issues, thinking cynically about the rights and feelings of others, and exploiting them assertively for your own profit. This is where an instrument like the TOP can be helpful; you are given access to a very precise and detailed personality profile in which you can see high, low, or average, scores, and then you can compare them with other candidates’ results.

Given what you know and have observed, what would you say are the more relevant and important traits when it comes to leading in a time of crisis?

In moments of unpredictability it is vital that leaders show confidence, but it is equally as important to identify which type of confidence they have. Is it a narcissistic over-confidence in which someone might think ‘I am the best; nothing can happen to me!’ and would have a tendency to abuse their position of power? Or are they reliably confident? The sort of self-aware leader who would have faith in their team, their plan, their preparedness, and their ability to do the job.

A manager must be trustworthy and good at communicating with their team in a transparent way. They should be willing to listen to others, to listen to the experts, to look for the facts and to do the research before making decisions. I believe these are all good principles to abide by and make for successful leadership.

What traits would you say are most important for leaders and organisations when their staff need to work remotely?

Although it sounds simple, it is true to say that the virtual setting is a different setting, so it needs a different leadership style, at least to some extent. Classic leadership techniques rely on meeting objectives by delegating tasks, whilst frequently checking in on staff to keep track of progress, but this needs a level of control that is harder to achieve remotely.

Apart from the required technical skills and knowledge, work is now much more about communication, integration, trust, and the ability to share tasks and opinions. An open, democratic leader will likely improve team performance. Team members will have confidence in their own ability if they believe they are trusted to do their job well, and in turn they may feel more motivated to achieve their objectives. A grandiose type is unlikely to want to share the limelight or have to share responsibility for their team’s successes. They would not want to be thought of as an equal, preferring to be seen as superior.

How can a personality measure such as the TOP help to predict work performance without creating unfair discrimination based on demographic or non-job-related variables?

The more we base selection and development on objective, observable, and measurable criteria in relation to job performance, the closer we get to eliminating bias in recruitment. Using a validated psychometric test like the TOP can be one of the best ways to establish a fairer approach to recruitment, because by understanding a candidate’s personality traits before you know their circumstances, age, or even their name, you are effectively removing prejudice from the process.

Not forgetting, even if you have the best tools for selection, you also need qualified professionals trained in those tools to be able to administer them most effectively and follow up with test-takers appropriately.

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The TOP exclusively measures work-related aspects of personality that drive potentially negative behaviours – it does not measure ‘bright side’ personality traits or motivations. We therefore recommend that the TOP be used as part of an overall selection process, alongside a different assessment of personality such as the NEO Personality Inventory or the Business-focused Inventory of Personality.

Hogrefe also offers a one-day training programme designed for those wishing to deepen their applied understanding and extend their competence and confidence in using the TOP. Please see our website for more information.

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