It’s a question that’s plagued researchers for years, and unfortunately, there’s no clear answer.
Now, new research suggests that jerks can sometimes be more successful, depending on the specific traits they display.
All participants filled out questionnaires that measured “Dark Triad” traits, which include psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. Psychopathy is defined by qualities like impulsivity and low empathy; narcissism is defined by a “grandiose, yet fragile sense of the self”; Machiavellianism involves a willingness to manipulate and exploit other people.
Questions included, “I tend to want others to pay attention to me” (narcissism); “I tend to lack remorse” (psychopathy); and “I tend to manipulate others to get my way” (Machiavellianism).
The researchers were interested in both the participants’ objective and subjective success at work. First they measured participants’ salaries and recorded whether they held any leadership positions (objective success). Then they asked participants to fill out a survey on career satisfaction (subjective success).
According to their findings, narcissism and Machiavellianism are linked to professional success — but psychopathy is not.
When the researchers controlled for factors like gender and working hours, they found that people who scored high on measures of narcissism earned higher salaries. Meanwhile, those who scored high on measures of Machiavellianism were more likely to hold leadership positions and were more satisfied with their careers.
So what’s the link between dark personality traits and success at work?
In terms of Machiavellianism, the researchers write: “It might be that the high desire for status represents a component of Machiavellianism, which helps individuals high in Machiavellianism to occupy organizational positions that lead to a positive career evaluation.”
As for those high in narcissism, the researchers say they often make good first impressions, especially in job interviews, so they might land more prestigious jobs than the average person. It’s also possible they are more likely to initiate and succeed in negotiations.
While those high in narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy are all relatively disagreeable (i.e. they have a hard time getting along with others), the researchers say psychopaths express their disagreeableness differently. For example, psychopaths might show more aggressive and antisocial behaviour, which could sabotage their success in the workplace.
To be clear, if you score high on any of these traits, it doesn’t mean you have a clinical problem. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in The Harvard Business Review, you can still function normally at work and in your personal life.
Importantly, Chamorro-Premuzic also notes that while dark personality traits might be good for the individual, they’re generally detrimental to the long-term success of the organisation as a whole. For example, he cites studies that have found employees high in dark personality traits are linked to negative behaviours like bullying and absenteeism, and even poor job performance.
The question that remains, of course, is how to spot someone with a dark personality trait before he ingratiates himself and makes his way to the top of an organisation. As one expert told The Wall Street Journal, look out for bullying behaviour and for someone who appears too nice.
Future research should yield more clues on how to avoid getting suckered in and then stomped on.
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