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Strong Social Skills Enable ‘Toxic’ People to Succeed at Work

How do people with toxic personalities get ahead in their careers? Wouldn’t their bad character traits hold them back? Not necessarily, says a new German study.

The findings show that having strong social skills — and using them for evil — may be the biggest driver behind a successful person with a “toxic personality,” a term used to describe people who behave greedily, immodestly and unfairly and take the truth very lightly.

For the study, Dr. Mareike Kholin, Bastian Kückelhaus and Professor Gerhard Blickle from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bonn in Germany looked into how people with such toxic personality traits can still succeed in their careers. They discovered that the key to their career success is having strong social skills and using them for selfish reasons.

In general, social skills are a great thing to have in the workplace. They can open doors and help one cope with daily stress. But on the downside, these skills can also be used to deceive others, abuse trust or construct a façade of harmlessness beyond which actually lurks deceitfulness.

Kholin and the research team determined that toxic personalities who are considered socially adept by their colleagues were considered more capable by their superiors and tend to occupy a higher hierarchical position. “We have to get used to the idea that social skills can be a double-edged sword,” said Kholin.

In personality tests, toxic persons have low scores in the categories “honesty” and “modesty.” “Such personalities tend to focus on themselves all the time,” says Blickle. “Good social skills enable them to deceive others.”

On the other hand, people with strong social skills who are distinctly honest and modest are a real joy for their teams: Such individuals behave fairly and allow colleagues to share in their successes.

Psychologists from the University of Bonn investigated the phenomenon by interviewing various work teams: First the study participants filled out an anonymous online survey and rated themselves on the character traits of “honesty” and “modesty”, among others.

Then the participants’ colleagues provided information on their social skills. Each participant’s supervisor then gave an appraisal of his work performance. The researchers were able to collect data from a total of 203 of such “trios” of employees, colleagues and superiors.

The study results show that workers with low values for honesty and modesty can nonetheless succeed in their careers if they balance the toxic parts of their personality with social skills. “Trickery, disguise and deception are the dark side of social skills,” said Kückelhaus.

So how can companies and teams respond to these findings?

“In order to slow down the ascent of toxic personalities, more attention should be paid to actual performance and less to the good impression when selecting staff and making assessments,” said Blickle.

This is particularly difficult in activities where it is important to impress and arouse interest, such as in sales or leadership positions. “Here, it makes sense for instance to also look at the sickness and notice rate of employees, or customer loyalty,” Blickle said.

The new findings are presented online in advance in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. The print version will be published in April.

Source: University of Bonn

Strong Social Skills Enable ‘Toxic’ People to Succeed at Work

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Strong Social Skills Enable ‘Toxic’ People to Succeed at Work. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Mar 2020 (Originally: 17 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Mar 2020
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