Dark personalities in the workplace

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What is personality?

Before we can understand dark personalities, we need to first understand the concept of personality.

We each have traits that define who we are and influence our actions, we call the combination of these traits our personality. Personality is partly heritable (genetics) and partly influenced by our life experiences (environmental factors). Our personality traits are rather stable over the course of our lives which means that the main traits that defined you as a child propably define you as an adult. Of course we can change as we experience life; however, our dominant traits (strenghts and weaknesses) tend to define us throughout our lives.

What are personality disorders?

What about personality disorders? Just as personality is composed of a combination of traits, personality disorders are also defined by a combination of traits. Each trait is on a continuum, which means that we can score anywhere from low to high on each trait and on the personality disorder as a whole as well.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders ( DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association provides clinical criteria for personality disorders. The manual defines personality disorders as such: “A Personality Disorder is an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment.” As mentioned above, personality is stable over time and personality disorders do not appear following an event or a “mood” a person feels at some point in their lives.

When we study dark personalities in the workplace, we study what is called subclinical personality disorders. On a subclinical level, individuals present numerous traits of clinical personality disorders without necessarily being clinically recognized as having a personality disorder. Nevertheless, some individuals who score high on subclinical measures of dark personalities could also qualify for the clinical diagnosis. Furthermore, individuals who do not qualify for the full clinical diagnosis yet display many of the traits associated with a personality disorder can have a significant negative impact on their environment and on people around them.

Take, for instance, psychopathy, the most dangerous of the dark personalities. Even if an individual does not score at the clinical level, the traits that they present can be extremely detrimental to others. I believe that individuals who may not show extreme scores on dark personality disorders such as psychopathy may still be very dangerous. They may be better at disguising their dark side using highly developed interpersonal/manipulation skills.

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The Dark Triad

Dr. Delroy Paulhus has introduced a dark personality model that he calls the Dark Triad, composed of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Although these personalities share common traits (Dr. Paulhus explains that all three personalities present a malicious character, have a tendency for self-promotion, emotional coldness, lying, and aggressiveness), they are not equivalent.

Dark triad common core

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Dr. Daniel Jones studies the similarities between the three personalities and has termed the similarities “the core of darkness” which is defined by Callousness and manipulation. In fact, Dr. Jones used Robert Hare’s psychopathy model to test the core of darkness and the two factors that were identified as the shared elements for all three Dark Triad personalities are Dr. Hare’s Factors 1 and 2 (from the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, his measure of psychopathy). These factors are:

Factor 1 Manipulative/Unethical

  • Superficial charm
  • Grandiose sens of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Conning/Manipulative

Factor 2 Callous/Insensitive

  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Shallow affect
  • Callous/lack of empathy
  • Failure to accept responsibility

While all dark personalities composing the Dark Triad share common traits, they should not be considered equivalent.

Paulhus & Williams (2002)
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Defining dark personalities


“Narcissism is a complex trait that includes inflated views of self, intrapsychic and interpersonal strategies for maintaining these inflated self-views, and poor relational functioning.” – Twenge & Campbell (2003)

Narcissistic individuals are self-centered, they need to be admired and to be the center of attention. These individuals are highly competitive and may react aggressively to criticism. They have low empathy for others and they will not hesitate to use them to get what they want. They believe that they are superior to others and, as such, that they are entitled to privileges. Not surprisingly, narcissism has been referred to as the “God complex”.

As I mention in my book Dark Personalities in the Workplace, power over others is also sought by narcissistic individuals, which include sexual benefits that they believe come with power. They believe that others are attracted to them and they often exhibit sexually suggestive behavior within the workplace. They do not enjoy being managed and they need to have constant praise for their work, regardless of the amount of effort (or lack thereof) that they invest. Their assessment of themselves and their achievements is always very high, regardless of facts pointing to the contrary. Note that they will not hesitate to pass other people’s work and ideas as their own to get the credit. They will resort to manipulation and lying to get what they want.  They often have a strong presence and are therefore able to influence others. They see their superior as a rival and will often try to diminish his or her credibility and reputation. As employees, they cannot be trusted as they will do anything to gain power within the organization, they are self-serving individuals who do not work for anyone but themselves.


“Since the publication of The Prince in 1532, the name of its author has come to designate the use of guile, deceit, and opportunism in interpersonal relations. Traditionally, the “Machiavellian” is someone who views and manipulates others for his own purpose.” – Christie & Geis (1970)

The term Machiavellianism comes from Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian diplomat who wrote a book entitled “The Prince” in which he explains that rulers should use any means at their disposal to get what they want; including committing immoral deeds. As I mention in my book Dark Personalities in the Workplace, Machiavellians, as opposed to psychopaths and narcissists, are able to conduct long-term schemes; they are not as impulsive and may not be as flamboyant as the other two personalities, which serves them well as they are able to operate under the radar for longer periods. Indeed, impulsivity is often what allows others to see beyond the lies and manipulation, beyond the image created by individuals with dark personalities. As such, not being as impulsive as the other two personalities composing the Dark Triad is an asset that serves Machiavellians as it allows them to be more calculating and strategic when conducting their schemes. Machiavellians have an excellent political sense and they have the ability to learn the ins and outs of an organization in very little time, which allows them to navigate its power structure with dexterity.  


“Because they are emotionally unconnected to the rest of humanity, and because they callously view others as little more than objects, it should be relatively easy for psychopaths to victimize the vulnerable and to use violence as a tool to obtain what they want.” -Robert D. Hare (1999)

Psychopathy is the most dangerous of the three Dark Triad personalities. It can be defined by four factors labeled as follows: Interpersonal (Glibness/superficial charm, Grandiose sense of self-worth, Pathological lying, Conning/manipulative); Affective (Lack of remorse or guilt, Shallow affect, Callous/lack of empathy, Failure to accept responsibility for actions); Lifestyle (Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom, Parasitic lifestyle, Lack of realistic long-term goals, Impulsivity, Irresponsibility); and Antisocial (Poor behavioral controls, Early behaviour problems, Juvenile delinquency, Revocation of conditional release, Criminal versatility). These four Factors are measured by Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R; Hare, 2003). Psychopathy is the most dangerous of the three Dark Triad personalities. What distinguishes psychopaths from other individuals is the fact that they do not have a conscience. They do not feel guilty for the crimes they have committed, in fact, when questioned, they feel entitled to what they may have gained by committing the crime. They are pathological liars and, when confronted about a discrepancy in what they said, they will lie about having said that, dismiss it, or offer another explanation without feelings of shame or remorse. As I mention in my book Dark Personalities in the Workplace, Psychopaths are master manipulators and they have the charisma to influence others into thinking that they are great leaders. Make no mistake, psychopathic individuals are not loyal; they are deceitful, dangerous, and they only serve one master: their ego.

I believe that knowledge is power. Therefore, by writing this blog, I wish to help employees and organizations gain knowledge on dark personalities to protect their workforce and their assets.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this information and that it will prove to be helpful to you. I will keep posting information on dark personalities in the workplace, leadership, and employee well-being on this blog. Take care, Cynthia

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