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  • Dr. Jeff Doolittle

What is the Darkside of Personality?

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 darkside personality traits are not the same. Darkside 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 insights and considerations for modern leaders into the dark side of personality in the workplace.

Dark Personality Definition

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.


Darkside Personality Types

Darkside personality sits in between what is considered normal personality and clinical pathology. Modern research into dark personality has focused on the Dark Triad of personality which includes Machiavelianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.

Machiavellianism refers to a personality type that is a master manipulator. They are described as calculating, conniving, deceptive, and lack empathy. A manipulative quote you could expect to hear from a Machiavellian is the quote 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. It is worth noting; however, at least one study identified both positive and negative effects with this darkside personality type.

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 study, narcissists tend to support a hierarchical organizational structure if they are at the top or expect to get to the top. In a study of over 2,700 working adults, narcissism is the dominant predictor of counterproductive workplace behavior among the dark triad personality types.

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

The following short video provides a good overview of how the Dark Personality Triad types are similar yet distinctly different.

Take the Short Dark Triad Assessment

If you are interested in learning more about your dark triad tendencies strictly for educational and entertainment purposes, here is a link to the free five-minute Short Dark Triad developed in 2011 by Delroy Paulhus and Daniel Jones:

Darkside Personality and Workplace Performance

Discretionary effort or organizational citizenship behavior is like the Light Side of corporate performance, and counterproductive workplace behavior is like the Dark Side. Counterproductive workplace behavior (CWB) is simply any behavior that undercuts business goals and aspirations. A study 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.

Talent Management Considerations for Leaders

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. They are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Research into these personality traits suggests it is possible to make changes through persistent interventions.

Our behaviors are constantly changing, situation to situation and moment to moment. There is no single right way to change personality or behaviors. The following are proven suggestions to counter dark personality behaviors in the workplace.

  • Executive Assessments: 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. When selecting an assessment, it is vital to use a qualified executive coach to help interpret and apply the learnings.

  • Executive Coaching: There are many benefits of executive coaching. 80% of people who receive coaching report increased self-confidence. Over 70% benefit from improved work performance, relationships, and more effective communication skills. 86% of companies report that they recouped their investment in coaching and more (ICF, 2009).

  • Organizational culture: Narcissists are less likely to demonstrate counterproductive workplace behaviors in a collectivist culture. In these cultures, self-serving behaviors are not rewarded. Leaders can architect organizational culture by influencing what behavior gets rewarded, responses to narcissistic behavior, organizational design, and workspace design.

  • Performance Management Feedback: When providing performance feedback to dark side personality types, it is helpful to precisely communicate desired behaviors to achieve organizational goals and support team cohesion. Additionally, the reality of a hybrid workforce with geographically dispersed employees is not going away. Appropriately, using the power of other's presence to shape dark side personality behavior can improve performance.

  • Reward and Recognition Systems: 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.

  • Training and Development: Bringing out the best in all personality types includes training and development. Research demonstrates that investments into development at critical career transition points are effective for influencing dark personality types. Helping individuals understand appropriate work expectations and behaviors can help organizations avoid costly mistakes.

The effects of dark personality types on others and organizations (i.e., sabotage, bullying, sexual harassment, fraud, employee theft, and absenteeism) demand that organizational leadership take responsibility to make change happen.

Change people or change people.

What to Read Next About the Dark Side of Personality

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 other 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.

Summary 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


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.