Do darker personalities get ahead?

Published on Jun 5, 2024

by Dr. Duck

In an era seemingly dominated by ego-driven leaders, manipulative tactics, and cold-hearted strategies, it may be tempting to think embracing these darker traits is necessary for success.

It’s a popular belief that the top ranks of the business world harbour more psychopaths. Is this the case?

For every 100 people you meet, it’s likely at least one of them is a psychopath. But if you work with the executive suite that figure triples.

If you encounter a psychopath, it’s unlikely you were in immediate physical danger. They are more likely to charm than harm. Their real goal is to dominate and manipulate you.

This is why many psychopaths thrive in high-stakes business environments, where these more aggressive, unscrupulous tactics are valued.

If you find yourself working with one, it’s best to keep your distance and setting clear professional boundaries. Take Professor James Fallon—an experienced neuroscientist—who came across a one at work who was too close for comfort—himself!

Reviewing brain scans for his research, he identified one with clear signs of psychopathy—his own.

The scan explained his self-confessed impulsive, domineering, and cold-hearted behaviour, reminding us that psychopaths are often living amongst us not knowing there’s anything wrong.

Unfortunately, psychopaths aren’t the only unhinged people you need to avoid. Researchers have identified three additional types: Machiavellians, narcissists, and sadists.

Machiavellians certainly seem to have what it takes. They build alliances and are even excellent strategists. They are patient and level-headed. You might even think this sounds like the perfect candidate in a job interview.

But they also sabotage everyone around them. Think Peter ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish from Game of Thrones, or Kevin Spacey’s president Frank Underwood in House of Cards. They have your back until they put a knife in it.

Machiavellians thrive in ambiguous settings where workplace rules and goals are not clearly defined, such as during a time of change or crisis. Because they operate in the shadows, transparency is a crucial strategy in managing them.

Narcissists, in contrast, don’t hide. Instead, they gravitate to places where there’s a platform. Our world is filled with powerful narcissistic CEOs and political figures. They show up on the cover of magazines and attract an army of followers on social media platforms, such as Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Donald Trump.

Narcissists have an insatiable appetite for validation often overstating their achievements and qualifications. In most cases, the gap between their abilities and the demands of their roles eventually unravels them along with their strained relationships.

Sadists are perhaps the most disturbing dark personality. They simply derive pleasure from the suffering of others.

Sadists often show up where bullying behaviour is tolerated, if not outright celebrated, like in Hollywood. Notorious director, Alfred Hitchcock, was known for his outright sadistic behaviour like on-set of the 1963 film The Birds. Hitchcock tied live birds to actress Tippi Hedren to get a more realistic performance.

It’s clear that darker personalities do get ahead, at least momentarily or in certain contexts. But does this mean they are ultimately more successful than you or I?

Psychologists have concluded unless they learn to supress their dark impulses, most dark personalities end up alienating everyone around them and isolating themselves. This is exemplified by Harvey Weinstein whose ruthless and sadistic behaviour ultimately led to his downfall.

Yes, three percent of executives might be psychopaths. But I suspect the remaining 97% are likely to embody at least some of the true qualities of successful leadership.  They inspire and motivate their teams. They build, not sabotage, relationships. They cherish helping and unlocking doors for others. And, in the end, they aren’t working hard trying to manipulate or coerce others. They just work hard at their job.

If you encounter a dark personality, there are a few tips to follow:

Prevention. Managers can filter them through careful selection, looking for traits and history that indicates dark behaviour, such as constant movement from job to job.

Keep your distance. Only engage with them professionally and at a minimum. They will use any personal information as leverage.

Keep it clear. Setting clear boundaries and rules ensures that they can’t manipulate the facts or hide in the detail.

Know yourself. Psychopaths are excellent at gaslighting you and making you feel like you’re the crazy one. Remind yourself this isn’t you.

Last resort. Rely on your workplace to support you and take off if they tolerate the bully. Bullying behaviour is not just immoral it’s illegal.

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at nick@opposite.com.au.

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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