There has been a lot in the media lately about new workplace studies around Dark Triad personality traits – the kind of traits that tend to lead to adverse interpersonal interactions. There is a pretty good summary in the WSJ by Sue Shellenbarger covering a scholarly study about the Dark Triad and how it relates to the workplace. There is even a related podcast from NPR, if listening to a panel discussion is more your speed.

I don’t think anyone in the world of HR or Leadership Development is surprised to hear that people with sub-clinical but still higher levels of narcissism, Machiavellianism, or psychopathy can be successful in the corporate world. There is always a spectrum with personality traits and a person with an above average narcissistic personality might come across as confident and charismatic or very focused. A person with a Machiavellian streak might seem like a very keen networker or savvy operator. The people who tend toward psychopathy might seem cool and collected or be good at not letting expectations or authority prevent them from being bold. As Shellenbarger points out, there is a silver lining to each of these Dark traits, especially when they are tempered by more positively social behavior.

All of this reminds me of the value of personality tests in evaluating talent and potential leaders. of course some are better than others and they can be (and are) overused to the point of distraction or uselessness by managers that see them as a shorthand method for explaining or understanding how different people work together differently. But in reality, as a complement to other evaluative tools, personality assessment can help to uncover or explain trends that might otherwise be difficult to tease out.

In my work, I like to use some of the Hogan Assessment tools to get a clearer picture on the strengths, weaknesses, and motivations of potential leaders. Having this data is very often helpful in understanding how other information about a person fits together and leads to better coaching, and decision making about leadership potential. Most often these personality measurement tools clearly show the potential for a person’s strengths to be either overused or to have a detrimental dark side. Think of it as the reverse paradigm of the Dark Triad ‘silver linings’ from the Shellenbarger article: A person who is bold and charismatic might come across to others as self-absorbed or arrogant. Or someone who is careful and deliberate by nature might also be too risk-adverse or slow to make important decisions. More often than not it is easier for a leader to work on recognizing and tempering their strengths than it is for them to actually make a lot of headway with their weaknesses.

Which is perhaps good news for those people who score high for the Dark Triad traits (there is a simple test here.) A person that knows they tend toward these extremely problematic personality issues, might have an easier time keeping their behavior inside the acceptable lines. Being a little Dark might have a positive benefit, but giving any one of the traits in this Triad a free hand in your actions will almost certainly derail a career.

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