EnglishHR / OccupationalLatest News

The Dark Triad of Personality at Work – why do organizations need to know about it?

Strong, effective, and self-aware teams are in demand – maybe more now than ever. In selection and development contexts, this means identifying not only how teams might fit together in complex, uncertain and often remote environments, but also potential ‘dark side’ derailers – that is, characteristics that can quickly turn negative under pressure.

The dark triad of personality

Dark personality in the workplace and its related traits have been increasingly studied and scrutinized since their inception, with researchers and practitioners concerned over the exceedingly negative consequences of having individuals with these traits in senior positions within an organization (Schyns, 2022). A study conducted in 2002 by Paulhus and Williams had originally defined the three terms of the Dark Triad of Personality:

  • Narcissism – in which someone has an unreasonably high sense of their own importance.
  • Machiavellianism – when someone has the drive to use whatever means necessary to gain power.
  • Subclinical psychopathy – someone highly skilled in the art of manipulation.

Yet, organizational scholars are beginning to consider whether short bursts of these dark traits may be “effective strategies for dealing with anxiety or advancing one’s agenda” albeit producing “negative social consequences when they were displayed either too much or too long” (Harms, 2022, p. 280). It could also be argued that power that comes with leadership is somewhat affixed to dark personality traits, which can negatively affect employees and organizations (Schattke & Marion-Jetten, 2022). Schattke & Marion-Jetten argue that a “high explicit power motive is a double-edged sword depending on whether people desire power for dominance, prestige, or leadership,” (Schattke & Marion-Jetten, 2022, p. 290) in a cross-sectional and a prospective study on this topic, which revealed that those wanting dominance exhibit a more counterproductive work behavior, while those desiring leadership and are outcome-focused may be best suited for executive positions. Therefore, the question we must ask ourselves is – how can we identify these traits in employees, and how can we best use what we learn to produce positive outcomes for organizations?

The Dark Triad of Personality at Work

The ability to measure work-related components of the dark triad of personality is key to ensuring that potential derailers that can impact performance are realized. The Dark Triad of Personality at Work (TOP) focuses on the three main dark personality traits: A self-centered work approach, which is related to “narcissism,” and measures an exaggeration of self-worth, including claims to leadership and belief in persuasive power. Another trait is an enforcement-focused work attitude, measuring emotional toughness and distrustful attitude towards colleagues, and with links to “Machiavellianism.” Also included is an uncommitted-impulsive work style, adapted from “subclinical psychopathy,” which measures an unstructured work style related to irresponsibility and a readiness to break rules or use deceit to reach professional goals. These offer insights that are useful in any selection process, or as part of a development plan in leadership positions. The TOP, standardized and normed in the US among other countries, is validated against the Short Dark Triad (SD3) and the Hogan Development Survey (HDS), and shows a reliable internal consistency (values between .79 and .96 for a combined US and UK sample of over 2000 people). The complementary book published in 2023, The Dark Triad of Personality in Personnel Selection, written by the TOP author Dominik Schwarzinger, aims to clarify the application of the TOP in operational personnel work, highlighting the gains and risks of these traits, as well as answering structural questions relating to the Dark Triad. In short, having an assessment which measures darker personality traits can allow an organization to detect managerial risks and to take the necessary steps for healthy relationships at work.

The light and dark sides of personality

Research on the dark side of personality is still in an emergent state (Jonason, 2022). Up until recently, dark traits have been researched under the clinical umbrella, most notably narcissism, clinically known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. A reason for the slow emergence of research for the Dark Triad may partially be attributed to “light” side of personality, assessed for example by the Five Factor Model, or “Big Five” (Terracciano & McCrae, 2006), and its prevalence both in research and practice in the personality psychology field. However, while the Big Five is helpful for identifying a wide range of traits and behavioral styles, the “dark” or shadow side of personality can shed even more light on this. It is critical that the appropriate assessment tools should be used when assessing personality traits. By being able to select the right tools for the right circumstance, organizations can benefit from leadership, promoting a healthy organizational culture.

In the US, the average American spends a third of their waking hours at work (Statista Research Department, 2022). Therefore, organizations must ensure that this time be spent optimally by identifying light and dark traits in leadership positions and enriching the work environment accordingly, promote job satisfaction and well-being at work.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.), 669-672.

Braun, S., Kark, R., & Wisse, B. (2018). Editorial: Fifty Shades of Grey: Exploring the Dark Sides of Leadership and Followership. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. <https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01877/full>

Harms, P. D. (2022). Bad is stronger than good: A review of the models and measures of dark personality. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 230(4), 290–299. <https://doi.org/10.1027/2151-2604/a000496>

Jonason, P.K. (2022). Shining Light on the Dark Side of Personality: Measurement Properties and Theoretical Advances, 3-5. Hogrefe Publishing.

Paulhus, D., & Williams, K. (2002). The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 556–568.

Robson, D. (2016). Do ruthless people really get ahead? bbc.com <https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20160103-do-ruthless-people-really-get-ahead>

Schattke, K., & Marion-Jetten, A. S. (2021). Distinguishing the explicit power motives: Relations with dark personality traits, work behavior, and leadership styles. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 230(4), 290–299. <https://doi.org/10.1027/2151-2604/a000481>

Statista Research Department (2022). Monthly length of the average working week of all employees in the United States from November 2021 to November 2022. <https://www.statista.com/statistics/215643/average-weekly-working-hours-of-all-employees-in-the-us-by-month/>

Schwarzinger, D (2023). The Dark Triad of Personality in Personnel Selection. Hogrefe Publishing.

Schyns, B., Braun, S., & Neves P. (2022). Connecting dark personality research with workplace issues. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 230(4), 280-289. <https://econtent.hogrefe.com/doi/10.1027/2151-2604/a000507>

Terracciano, A., & McCrae R. (2006). Cross-cultural studies of personality traits and their relevance to psychiatry. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, 15(3), 176-184. <https://doi.org/10.1017/S1121189X00004425>

Our Recommendations