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Curbing Toxic Traits: A Framework for Identifying and Mitigating Destructive Leadership Styles


Toxic workplace cultures can arise when leaders display elevated levels of the so-called "dark triad" personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and subclinical psychopathy. While such traits should not necessarily disqualify someone from a leadership role, research shows they often correlate with counterproductive behaviors that undermine trust, engagement, and performance when left unchecked.


Today we will explore the personality traits that comprise the dark triad and their potential impacts on organizational culture, along with practical strategies that leaders and HR professionals can employ to identify warning signs, guard against toxic behaviors, and cultivate a more positive culture where all employees can thrive.


Narcissism: An Inflated Sense of Self


Narcissism is characterized by an inflated ego, constant need for admiration, and lack of empathy. Leaders high in narcissism tend to be authoritarian, demanding, and unwilling to accept criticism or responsibility for mistakes (Brunell et al., 2008). They often take credit for the work of others and blame subordinates when things go wrong. While a moderate level of self-assurance is important for leadership, excessive narcissism undermines trust and engagement. Employees may feel undervalued, micromanaged and afraid to raise concerns. The leader's impaired ability to listen and acknowledge errors damages relationships over time.


Machiavellianism: The End Justifies the Means


Machiavellianism describes a calculating, manipulative interpersonal style where "the end justifies the means" (Doob, 2015). Highly Machiavellian leaders prioritize outcomes over ethics and see coworkers as tools to achieve goals rather than valued partners. They are willing to deceive, coerce or sabotage others to get ahead (Jones & Paulhus, 2014). This breeds an atmosphere of fear, self-interest and backstabbing rather than cooperation. Employees are less likely to take risks, share knowledge or embrace the organization's mission if they perceive the leader acts in bad faith. Overreliance on authoritarian, win-at-all-costs tactics ultimately hinders innovation and long-term success.


Subclinical Psychopathy: Callous Self-Interest


Subclinical or corporate psychopathy refers to personality traits associated with clinical psychopathy, such as shallow emotions, lack of remorse, selfishness and tendency to blame others, but without actual criminal behavior (Babiak et al., 2010). Psychopathic leaders view staff as expendable resources, not individuals deserving dignity and compassion. They push hard targets without regard for well-being, then ruthlessly discipline anyone who fails to deliver (Furnham, 2013). This induces fear, stress, and low morale as employees feel disposable and replaced at any sign of weakness. Workers who are not cut-throat and image-conscious enough to please the leader may be marginalized or fired without compassion.


Addressing the Problem: Strategies for Leaders and HR


The following strategies can help leaders and HR professionals reduce toxic elements that arise from excessive dark triad traits and cultivate a healthier organizational culture where people feel respected, engaged and empowered to do their best work.


  • Assess leadership candidates for "red flags." Thoroughly vet potential hires using personality assessments and reference checks with an eye toward dark triad warning signs. Look out for patterns of blaming others, dominating conversations, or downplaying responsibility. Consider alternative candidates with a more balanced profile.

  • Provide training on empathetic leadership. Mandate training to build self and social awareness around concepts like emotional intelligence, respect, honest feedback, cultural sensitivity and leading from a place of compassion rather than fear or self-interest. Show leaders how these approaches increase engagement and performance.

  • Establish accountability measures. Develop transparent processes to evaluate leaders on relationship-building metrics like employee satisfaction, inclusion, development and retention in addition to financial targets. Ensure consequences like reduced compensation or job loss result from continued toxic behaviors rather than just poor business results alone.

  • Promote two-way feedback. Have leaders routinely solicit anonymous input on their effectiveness through confidential surveys then coaches help them reflect on themes and act on opportunities for improvement. Leaders should model welcoming feedback without defensiveness to establish a culture where all voices matter.

  • Empower whistleblowers safely. Create protected channels like an ombudsperson for employees to anonymously report unethical conduct without fear of reprisal. Take all complaints seriously and discipline leaders fairly according to evidence from careful investigations. This signals the organization prioritizes integrity over any single person.

  • Rotate challenging assignments. Consider periodically moving toxic leaders to roles with less direct reports where behaviors have less impact and supervisors can provide dedicated coaching to reform detrimental styles. Replace them with those embodying humility, compassion and willingness to develop through critique.


Conclusion


Excessive narcissism, Machiavellianism and subclinical psychopathy represent leadership traits which, left unaddressed, can seriously undermine organizational culture, trust, and performance over the long term. However, through proactive assessments, training, feedback and accountability measures, companies can vet for more balanced leaders while helping marginal candidates improve detrimental styles that may arise from unchecked personality tendencies. With focus and effort, even historically toxic cultures can be turned around by guarding against darkness and cultivating an environment where light shines through respect, responsibility and care for all people.


References


  • Babiak, P., Neumann, C. S., & Hare, R. D. (2010). Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 28(2), 174–193. https://doi.org/10.1002/bsl.925

  • Brunell, A. B., Gentry, W. A., Campbell, W. K., Hoffman, B. J., Kuhnert, K. W., & DeMarree, K. G. (2008). Leader emergence: The case of the narcissistic leader. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(12), 1663–1676. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167208324101

  • Doob, A. N. (2015). An Ignoble Aside: The Machiavellianism Scale and Conduct Problems. Psychological Bulletin, 141(4), 700–704. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000004

  • Furnham, A. (2013). The elephant in the boardroom: the causes of leadership derailment. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Jones, D. N., & Paulhus, D. L. (2014). Introducing the short dark triad (SD3) a brief measure of dark personality traits. Assessment, 21(1), 28–41. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073191113514105

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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