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Is your boss a psychopath?

Leadership consultants talk about how to identify the ‘dark triad’ of psychopathic traits

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By Quentin Fottrell, MarketWatch


MarketWatch photo illustration/Everett Collection
The ‘dark triad’ consists of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.

Do you ever wonder why the bad guy is in charge — and the good guy is pushing paper?

There may be a reason for that. Bad bosses often promise the world, according to Deborah Ancona, a professor of leadership at MIT Sloan School of Management and founder of the MIT Leadership Center, and hard-working employees can be left to deal with the aftereffects. “Toxic leaders are often talking about all the great things that they can do,” she told MIT Sloan.

Management are always looking for solutions and someone who talks a good game, she said, but those people may not have the best interests of the staff or company at heart. Charisma and building a personal brand that inspires confidence can be enough to get the corner office. “Only later, through interaction or their behavior over time do you start to see the underbelly that isn’t always visible at first glance.”

‘Toxic leaders often talk about all the great things that they can do.’

—Deborah Ancona, founder of the MIT Leadership Center

Are bad bosses more likely to be men or women? A 2013 experiment published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization found that women are selected much less often as leaders, even when they have a stellar track record. The researchers noted key differences between the sexes: men were “overconfident” and more likely to exaggerate their past performance.

These personality traits are not pretty, and don’t bode well for employees, customers or, indeed, investors. The “dark triad,” cited by Ancona, consists of narcissism (extreme self-centeredness), Machiavellianism (manipulation of others) and psychopathy (acting impulsively with no regard for other people’s feelings). One is bad enough. But all three would make for a difficult work culture, especially in a competitive field with power and prestige at stake.

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Dorothy Ann Spry, an organizational psychologist and author of “Psychopathic Leadership: Good, Bad & Downright Ugly,” has worked with companies in the U.K. about how to recognize “dark triad” measures. “Sadly, a lot of people that train in emotional intelligence are not trained to recognize these dark traits — high manipulation, dysfunctional narcissism. Instead, recruiters are selecting charismatic, persuasive and cunning individuals.”

This is of concern to investors and employees, Spry says. “Just the thought of the existence of a narcissistic, authoritarian, manipulating and controlling leader wandering the corridors of an organization should be of interest to those involved in corporate management and corporate governance,” she said, “because their very presence influences the way organizations are run and their negative effects both on society and the environment we live in.”

See also: Psychos vs. nice guys — which type of hedge fund manager gets better returns?

But how can you tell? Ancona says to watch out for people who are moved around the company a lot, who may still have the confidence of upper management, if not the people they work with. Other signs: People who talk smack about other employees behind closed doors, especially their subordinates and co-workers, and bosses who don’t share information with their employees in an effort to manage up and take credit.

‘Recruiters are selecting charismatic, persuasive and cunning individuals.’

—Dorothy Ann Spry, author of ‘Psychopathic Leadership: Good, Bad, & Downright Ugly’

“It’s not a wonderful personality constellation,” according to Jesse Fox , associate professor of communications at Ohio State University, and co-author of a study of 800 men — “ The Dark Triad ” — published in the April 2015 edition of “Personality and Individual Differences,” a peer-reviewed journal, and a similar paper studying 400 women.

Workplace experts say it’s important to keep records of a person’s behavior, especially a toxic boss, should you need to make a report to human resources. It’s also important to speak up in meetings and advocate for yourself on digital platforms like Slack to avoid being marginalized, understand that it’s not personal, and keep your resume updated in case the culture becomes too much to bear.

Don’t miss: 5 ways Americans are being left behind

Many studies on corporate leaders have suggested that empathy is key to strong leadership and opens up a company to shared ideas through the ranks of an organization and even among offices in different countries. Julie Barnes, a New York-based clinical psychologist, says there’s “healthy versus unhealthy” narcissism. The latter could damage relationships, while the former might actually be useful to get ahead at work.

Another way to get clues about your boss or coworkers’ personality traits? Their social media profiles. In the era of Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +0.44% , Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR -0.75% , Snapchat /zigman2/quotes/205087158/composite SNAP +0.80%  and Instagram, people are more adept at curating their own personal brands. Indeed, people who post selfies on social networks like Instagram and Facebook are more likely to exhibit the “dark triad” of personality traits. That’s according to Fox’s study 1,200 men and women who completed personality tests and answered questions on their online habits.

‘Individuals with relatively high social class are more overconfident.’

—May 2019 study by Stanford University and the University of Virginia researchers

Constantly posting selfies provides an unrealistic mirror of our own lives, experts say. Narcissism, self-objectification and psychopathy predicted the actual number of selfies posted on sites like Instagram, as did how often people edited photographs that they posted online. Scouring social media is one more way for managers to make sure they’re hiring the real deal.

The latest study supports a separate paper published last week by researchers from Stanford University and the University of Virginia in the peer-reviewed Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes. “Individuals with relatively high social class are more overconfident,” they concluded. The result? “Advantages beget advantages.”

Also see: Incompetent, rich people are more likely to act like they’re really smart — and their co-workers believe them

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Quentin Fottrell is a personal finance reporter and The Moneyologist columnist for MarketWatch. You can follow him on Twitter @quantanamo.

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