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What is the Dark Side of Personality?

Dark Personalities

Star Wars presents an epic struggle between the light and dark side of the force. This special-effects-laden movie saga produced over ten billion dollars of revenue for Disney. However, in the workplace, the made-for-movie behaviors of dark personality traits are not the same. A dark personality sits in between what is considered a normal personality and clinical pathology. Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy make up the Dark Triad. These dark personality types are proven to increase costly, counterproductive work behaviors, such as sabotage, bullying, sexual harassment, fraud, employee theft, and absenteeism. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda tells Luke, "If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny." Is the same true for leaders? This article provides six dark-side countermeasures for your team and what to do if you work with or for someone with a dark personality.

What is a dark personality?

Like in Star Wars, the use of the word dark has a chilling effect. Before discussing the meaning of "dark" personality, it is helpful to understand what personality is. According to the American Phycological Association:

Personality refers to the individual differences in the characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving.

While research into the dark side of personality has increased in recent years, there is little consensus on what makes a personality feature dark. However, the following working definition is widely accepted:

A dark personality is socially undersireable and linked with interpersonal challenges and potentially destructive organizational behaviors such as aggression, manipulation, and exploitation.

Dark side personality traits are proven to increase the likelihood of leadership failure. In contrast, normal personality characteristics are proven to be catalysts for positive organizational results.

What is the Dark Triad

Modern research into dark personality has focused on the three particularly offensive but nonpathological personality types. The Dark Triad is made up of Machiavelianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.

Machiavellianism refers to a personality type that is a master manipulator. They are described as calculating, conniving, deceptive, and lacking empathy. A manipulative quote you could expect to hear from a Machiavellian is attributed to P. T. Barnum, "there's a sucker born every minute." Machiavellianism is associated with increased counterproductive workplace behavior and a lack of conscientiousness in the workplace. It is worth noting; however, at least one study revealed positive and negative effects from this dark side personality type. A survey of over 600 working adults from various industries found that Machiavellianism negatively influenced if employees would go above and beyond the expectations of the job for the betterment of their colleagues and the organization.

Narcissism refers to a highly self-involved personality. Narcissists have an inflated sense of importance, a high need for attention and admiration, and a fragile ego susceptible to the faintest criticism. You would expect to hear from a narcissist that they don't care what you think unless it is about them. In a Cornell University workplace study, narcissists supported hierarchical organizational structures when they were at the top or expected to get to the top quickly. In another study of over 2,700 working adults, narcissism was the dominant predictor of counterproductive workplace behavior among the dark triad personality types. Counterproductive workplace behavior (CWB) is simply any behavior that undercuts business goals and aspirations.

Psychopathy refers to a personality type marked by thrill-seeking with unusually low anxiety, a lack of empathy, antisocial behavior, a lack of guilt, and an absence of conscience. A representative quote you would expect from this personality type is attributed to actor James Marsters, "I am a psychopath, but I don't have a problem with that." According to researchers, psychopaths are "appreciating liabilities" that account for 1.15 trillion in annual costs due to coworker and organizational fallout in the workplace.

Here is a short video that explains how the Dark Personality Triad types are similar yet distinctly different.

Do you have Dark Triad tendencies?

After reading to this point, you might wonder if you (or someone you know) have Dark Triad tendencies. If so, here is a link to a free Short Dark Triad assessment developed by Delroy Paulhus and Daniel Jones, strictly for educational and entertainment purposes. After taking the assessment, you will receive a detailed report.

Can you change your personality?

Or is it true what Yoda told Luke that if you start down the dark path, it forever will dominate your destiny? Luckily, there is hope.

The Big Five personality traits serve as the building blocks of personality: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Evidence suggests that making personality trait changes through persistent and deliberate interventions is possible.

Big Five Personality Attributes

There is more than one way to make changes. Here are a few proven talent management suggestions to counter dark personality behaviors in the workplace.

Countermeasure #1: Organizational Culture

Your workplace culture influences everything. For example, narcissists are less likely to demonstrate counterproductive workplace behaviors in a collectivist culture, where self-serving behaviors are not rewarded. Consider using a culture assessment to discover how your company culture is reinforcing desired workplace behavior.

Countermeasure #2: Executive Assessments

When you know yourself, you have the insight to recognize bad leadership habits and make transformational changes that deliver proven results. The higher you move within an organization, the less objective the feedback you tend to receive; however, it becomes more critical personally and professionally. Executive assessments can provide deep insights into areas that, with attention, lead to enhanced potential. The NEO-PI-R is a measure of the Five-Factor Model (FFM) that provides a systematic assessment of normal personality and insight into facets of the Dark Triad.

Countermeasure #3: Executive Coaching

Combining executive coaching with assessments is proven to create positive outcomes. Most people who receive coaching report increased self-confidence, improved work performance, relationships, and more effective communication skills. Most companies report recouping their coaching investment through enhanced business outcomes.

Countermeasure #4: Performance Reviews

Chances are you are not as good at performance management as you think. When providing performance feedback to dark personality types, it is helpful to precisely communicate the desired behaviors in the context of achieving organizational goals and supporting team cohesion. Making it clear that company performance is the desired outcome.

Countermeasure #5: Reward and Recognition

Don't fall into the trap of believing that any recognition is better than no recognition. Know what motivates employees and don't reinforce the wrong behaviors. Machiavellians are concerned with impression management. Tightly aligning reward systems with desired behaviors will make them more appealing and encourage their behavior toward team cohesion. Make recognition a leadership habit.

Countermeasure #6: Training

Bringing out the best in all personality types includes employee learning and development opportunities. Research demonstrates that investments into development at critical career transition points effectively influence dark personality types. Helping employees understand appropriate work expectations and behaviors can help organizations avoid costly mistakes.

The adverse effects of dark personality types on others and the organization (e.x., sabotage, bullying, sexual harassment, fraud, employee theft, and absenteeism) demand that organizational leadership take responsibility for change.

Difficult Conversation

What if you work with or for someone with a dark personality?

Dark personalities in the general population are not common, typically less than one percent. However, they do exist, and most of us have some dark personality tendencies.

The good news is that people can change if they want to change. The bad news is that you can not make them change. Here are a few thoughts to consider before taking an action you regret.

Start with checking your MVP. Your motivation, vision, and perspective for this relationship moderate the effectiveness of your actions. If you have a positive MVP about this coworker or leader, you are more likely to have a positive outcome if you try to work on the relationship. When you don't have a positive MVP, you are less likely to be effective in your ability to work with them.

  • Motivation. Is your motivation about caring for them? Or is your motivation to be right? Reasons for a conversation matter. It is less likely an action you take will lead to positive changes without a positive reason.

  • Vision. How do you see the conversation's result going? Is it the best of what might be? Or is what you see a list of all the things that could go wrong? Anticipating a positive step in the journey provides a sense of purpose and direction to inspire your best and achieve success.

  • Perspective. When the lens through which you perceive a relationship is off, your results will turn out poorly. Is your paradigm of a healthy relationship? Or is your perspective that it is best to avoid the relationship?

Next, consider your options. You can accept the relationships for what they are, work to redefine the relationships or find a new place to work with different people. Although you can not make them change, you do have options, and it is essential to remember that you are in control of what and if you take action.

Shifting your mindset allows new perspectives and presents a never-ending opportunity to grow and achieve new heights in life and work. An effective executive coach will challenge assumptions and encourage, stretch, and challenge you.

life-changing leadership habits

What you should read next about dark personality types

If you enjoyed learning about the Dark Triad, you would likely enjoy reading The Dark Side of Personality: Science and Practice in Social, Personality, and Clinical Psychology by Virgil Zeigler-Hill. In this book, the author goes beyond the Dark Triad to address another dark side of personality traits such as spite, authoritarianism, and perfectionism.

Another book you might like is Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by authors Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare. These authors discuss the impact of psychopaths in the workplace and provide practical tools to help you avoid getting bit by them.

Key Points:

  • Darkside personality types are proven to increase costly, counterproductive work behaviors, such as sabotage, bullying, sexual harassment, fraud, employee theft, and absenteeism.

  • Dark personalities negatively impact teams and organizational outcomes.

  • Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy dark personality types make up the Dark Triad.

  • Narcissism is the dominant predictor of counterproductive workplace behavior among the dark triad personality types.

  • It is possible to change dark personality traits through persistent interventions.

If you have organizational culture or leadership development needs you cannot solve independently, we're ready to partner with you to craft a solution specific to your organization's context and challenges. Getting started is as easy as visiting or contacting us via email at

Organizational Talent Consulting Youtube Channel


Anderson, N. E., & Kiehl, K. A. (2014). Psychopathy: developmental perspectives and their implications for treatment. Restorative neurology and neuroscience, 32(1), 103–117.

Becker, J. & O'Hair, D. (2007). Machiavellians' motives in organizational citizenship behavior. Journal of Applied Communication Research. 35(3). Pp. 246-267.

Burke, R.J. (2006), Why leaders fail: Exploring the darkside. International Journal of Manpower, 27(1), pp. 91-100.

Michalak, R. T., & Ashkanasy, N. M. (2020). Working with monsters: Counting the costs of workplace psychopaths and other toxic employees. Accounting and Finance (Parkville), 60(S1), 729-770.

Psychology Topics. (2021). Personality. American Psychological Association.

Spain, S., Harms, P. & Lebreton, J. (2013). The dark side of personality at work. of Organizational Behavior. 35, S41-S60.

Zitek, E. M., & Jordan, A. H. (2016). Narcissism predicts support for hierarchy: At least when narcissists think they can rise to the top. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(7), 707–716.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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