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Is it Good to Be Bad in the Workplace?

Is it Good to Be Bad in the Workplace?In recent years there has been a growing examination of the dark side of personality. Researchers have begun to appreciate the role played by socially undesirable traits.

In fact, recent research has taken an interesting slant, examining the way in which dark traits actually can be advantageous. The book Snakes in Suits is an excellent example. It argues that psychopathy can in fact help executives get ahead by making them ruthless, charming and impulsive. Indeed, we have previously discussed how agreeableness can be a hindrance in business.

So what are dark traits and can they really help with winning?

The most widely accepted model of the dark side of personality is the Dark Triad, put forward by Paulhus and Williams in 2002. The model includes: Machiavellianism, marked by a tendency to be cynical, unprincipled and willing to manipulate; narcissism, characterized by grandiosity, entitlement and dominance; and psychopathy, seen in high impulsivity and thrill-seeking and low empathy.

The three traits often correlate with one another, leading some to speculate that the model only represents a single factor, which is often proposed to be disagreeableness (Jakobwitz & Egan, 2006), or a similar trait like lack of empathy (Jones & Paulhus, 2011).

However, while there is likely a trait underlying the Dark Triad, the three traits themselves are valid and independent. We can see this in their differential correlations with other traits and subtraits in the Big Five (e.g. Miller et al., 2010) and in their differential behavioral outcomes: Machiavellians are more likely than the other two traits to plagiarize essays (Nathanson, Paulhus & Williams, 2006), narcissists to self-enhance (Paulhus & Williams, 2002) and psychopaths to carry out revenge fantasies (DeLongis, Nathanson & Paulhus, 2011).

So — how about winning?

Where dark personalities excel is in leadership (e.g., Chatterjee & Hambrick, 2007).

Babiak and Hare (2010) even found that 3.5 percent of top executives score very highly on standard measures of psychopathy.

“He is a dreadful manager …. I have always liked Steve [Jobs], but I have found it impossible to work for him … He acts without thinking and with bad judgment …. He does not give credit where due … Very often, when told a new idea, he will immediately attack it and say it is worthless or even stupid, and tell you that it was a waste of time to work on it. This alone is bad management, but if the idea is a good one he will soon be telling people about it as though it was his own.” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 112).

As Hogan (2007) states, dark traits don’t help people to “get along,” but they do help them to “get ahead.” Most basely, narcissism, as one might expect, leads individuals to exhibit a higher yearning for leadership roles (e.g., Raskin & Novacek, 1991), which may cause them to self-nominate for leadership positions and thus be more likely to reach them (Hogan, Raskin & Fazzini, 1990). Furthermore, narcissism is consistently related to leadership emergence (e.g. Nevicka et al., 2011), ostensibly because narcissistic traits, like self-esteem and dominance, match traits of stereotypical leaders (Ensari et al., 2011; Judge et al., 2002). Narcissists also create a better first impression (Back et al., 2010).

Machiavellians, meanwhile, are able to gain political favor and portray themselves in the best light (Kessler et al., 2010), while psychopaths are charismatic and able to focus on achievement without being distracted by empathy for those exploited, made redundant, and so on (DePaulo, 2010). In many corporate contexts, the emotionless, aggressive, power-hungry psychopath is viewed as an ideal candidate (Wilson, 2010).

Furthermore, all three dark traits are associated with a tendency to coerce peers and subordinates in the workplace: Machiavellians and psychopaths adopt hard tactics, such as bullying, while Machiavellians and narcissists adopt soft tactics, such as compliments (Jonason, Slomski & Partyka, 2011).

However, as one might infer, these dark leaders often do not last. Research suggests these snakes in suits tend to derail down the line (Furnham, 2010). A great example might be Bernie Madoff. The Dark Triad has been related to white-collar crime (Mathieu et al., 2013), and one study found that psychopaths were more likely to gamble with other people’s money (Jones, 2013), and we all know what happened to Madoff in the end.

The pattern in other areas is the same. For example, those with a dark personality are typically seen as more attractive (women really do love jerks; e.g. Dufner et al., 2013), but their mating strategies are rarely suitable in the long-term (Jonason, Luevano & Adams, 2012).

So, while a dark personality might help you to get ahead some of the time, it is not a viable long-term strategy.

To find out more about dark personality traits, read “The Dark Triad of Personality: A 10-Year Review” here. It is an excellent review by Adrian Furnam and colleagues (2010).


Babiak, P., & Hare, R. (2006). Snakes in Suits. New York, NY: Regan Books.

Back, M. D., Schmukle, S. C., & Egloff, B. (2010). Why are narcissists so charming at first sight? Decoding the narcissism–popularity link at zero acquaintance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(1), 132.

Chatterjee, A., & Hambrick, D. C. (2007). It’s all about me: Narcissistic chief executive officers and their effects on company strategy and performance. Administrative Science Quarterly, 52(3), 351-386.

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Dufner, M., Rauthmann, J. F., Czarna, A. Z., & Denissen, J. J. (2013). Are Narcissists Sexy? Zeroing in on the Effect of Narcissism on Short-Term Mate Appeal. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(7), 870-882.

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Hogan, R., Raskin, R., & Fazzini, D. (1990). The dark side of leadership. In K. E. Clark & B. M. Clark (Eds.), Measures of Leadership (pp. 348-350). West Orange, NJ: Leadership Library of America.

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Mathieu, C., Hare, R. D., Jones, D. N., Babiak, P., & Neumann, C. S. (2013). Factor structure of the B-Scan 360: A measure of corporate psychopathy. Psychological Assessment, 25(1), 288.

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Nathanson, C., Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2006). Predictors of a behavioral measure of scholastic cheating: Personality and competence but not demographics. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 31(1), 97-122.

Nevicka, B., De Hoogh, A. H., Van Vianen, A. E., Beersma, B., & McIlwain, D. (2011). All I need is a stage to shine: Narcissists’ leader emergence and performance. The Leadership Quarterly, 22(5), 910-925.

Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36(6), 556-563.

Raskin, R., Novacek, J., & Hogan, R. (1991). Narcissistic self-esteem management. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(6), 911.

Wilson, P. (2010). Why psychopaths like Dexter aren’t really all that bad. In B. DePaulo (Ed.), The Psychology of Dexter (pp. 217–227). Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.

Is it Good to Be Bad in the Workplace?

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Patrick Fagan

Patrick Fagan is experienced in applying psychological insights to competitive advantage. He currently works as a Senior Behavioural Insights Associate for Mountainview Learning, where he conducts experimental projects for brands, and as an Associate Lecturer for Goldsmiths University. He also runs Psych Research, an individual differences testing platform for academics and businesses, and writes articles both for academic journals and press publications. Learn more at

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APA Reference
Fagan, P. (2018). Is it Good to Be Bad in the Workplace?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 10 Apr 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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