How psychopaths and narcissists get ahead at work


People who are both callous and manipulative are "positioned to force others into harmful outcomes".

The three darkest personalities are said to be psychopaths, narcissists and Machiavellians.

They’re responsible for much of the torture inflicted on employees, whether that’s bullying and exploitation, hyper-criticism or deceitfulness.

But what elements do these sinister behaviours have in common? There must surely be something, or some things, that unite them.

That’s the question researchers have answered in research due to be published in April’s edition of the Journal of Research in Personality, although the scholars have added two more behaviours to the mix: spitefulness and aggressiveness.

They’ve used a statistical method called network analysis – a new technique that investigates the strength and influence of various factors on each other.

The sample comprised more than 3000 participants, each of whom was required to complete questionnaires that contained statements like:

“I’m not afraid to step on others to get what I want.”
“I find it easy to manipulate people.”
“If I ruled the world it would be a much better place.”

The researchers then tested those responses across a number of elements such as exhibitionism, authoritativeness, entitlement, erratic lifestyle and even criminal tendencies. But none of those came even remotely close to the two found to be at the core of malevolent personalities: interpersonal manipulation and callousness.

The key takeout is that both elements are always in play among these people. More specifically, here’s how the scholars explain that toxic combination:

If someone’s callous without being manipulative, that person “may simply be socially disconnected”. In contrast, if someone’s manipulative without being callous, they’re likely to “direct their manipulation toward benign pursuits”. In either case, not a big deal.

But when someone’s both callous and manipulative, that’s when they’re “positioned to force others into harmful outcomes”.

If your response to that is a shrug of the shoulders and a question along the lines of “Well, what’s so bad about that?”, you’re not alone and maybe not incorrect.

In further research published last month, this time in the prestigious Journal of Management, a different set of scholars reported their findings on what would have to be the most comprehensive analysis ever conducted on dark personalities but with a distinct focus: Is there potentially an upside to being psychopathic, narcissistic and Machiavellian?

The answer, it turns out, is yes.

Psychopaths, for example, find themselves disproportionately in upper levels of the corporate hierarchy. They “effectively position themselves for future leadership opportunities, and others readily promote them”.

Narcissists, too, can be highly successful in organisations because of their charisma and ability to adapt, probably because they’re “more adept at working in changing or chaotic environments and when interacting with an audience”. Managers also usually perceive them as creative and confident, both of which are qualities that strengthen their chances of promotion.

Machiavellians, meanwhile, “exhibit the propensity to self-promote and take risks, which causes them to stand out among other potential leaders”. They’re also skilled at navigating organisational politics, thereby placing themselves in the right place at the right time for when the right opportunity arises.

What those profiles overlook, however, is that surely it must be possible to climb the corporate ladder without being a psychopath; to be creative and adaptable without being a narcissist; to outmanoeuvre political environments without resorting to Machiavellianism.

The challenge for many decision-makers, though, is that it can be extremely difficult, and in many cases impossible, to spot one of these personalities.

That’s because, in addition to being talented at the competencies noted above, there’s something else they’re also particularly good at: the art of disguising who (and what) they really are – until it’s too late to do anything about it.




People who are both callous and manipulative are "positioned to force others into harmful outcomes".


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