Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences

Living Edition
| Editors: Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Todd K. Shackelford

Dark Personality Features and Employment

  • Anna Z. CzarnaEmail author
  • Aleksandra Zajas
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_2094-1



Dark personality traits such as narcissism, Machiavellanism, and psychopathy have been shown to impact work-related outcomes. The impact is predominantly negative; however, particular features also provide certain advantages both to employees and organizations.


The term “dark personalities” or “dark personality traits” refers to a set of traits that are socially maladaptive, aversive, undesirable, and malevolent, but not enough so to be considered clinical-level pathology. A social psychology account emphasizes their maladaptiveness in terms of a negative influence on interpersonal relationships, including maximizing personal gains at the expense of others, callousness (Jones and Paulhus 2011), low empathy (Paulhus and Williams 2002), and low commitment to moral values (Jonason et al. 2015). A significant amount of research on the dark personality features has been concentrated around organizational and employment context, mainly due to the costs for individuals and organizations resulting from negative, harmful behaviors or attitudes (Spain et al. 2014). There are many dark personality features but this article will focus on the three most well-known ones called the Dark Triad (DT): narcissism, Machiavellanism and psychopathy. Since narcissism received most attention of the three, we elaborated on this particular feature. We overview a few most intensely investigated domains of work: preferred manipulation tactics and occupational niches, overall job performance, counterproductive work behavior (CWB), and indicators of career success (i.e., salary and career satisfaction). Additionally, we briefly discuss work civility, leadership emergence and effectiveness, quality of supervision, and effects on subordinates’ career success and well-being where the information is available.

Dark Triad includes narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism (Jonason and Webster 2010; Paulhus and Williams 2002). Narcissism is a self-centered, self-aggrandizing, dominant, and manipulative interpersonal orientation (Emmons 1987; Sedikides et al. 2004). Its core feature is an inflated, yet fragile, view of the self, accompanied by a sense of entitlement and grandiosity (Paulhus and Williams 2002). Narcissists are preoccupied with and fantasize about success, admiration, and control (Sedikides and Campbell 2017). Their engagement in self-enhancement, lack of trust and care for others is a main obstacle in mantaining interpersonal relationships (Ames et al. 2006). Psychopathy is shaped by impulsivity, inability to delay gratification, low empathy and anxiety, a lack of guilt or remorse, emotional shallowness, a belief in the superiority of oneself, and a parasitic lifestyle which can involve criminal activities (O’Boyle et al. 2012). The core feature of Machiavellianism is a cynical view of the human nature, resulting in lack of trust and a willingness to manipulate and exploit interaction partners (Pilch 2008; Spain et al. 2014). Individuals high in Machiavellianism believe in the effectiveness of manipulative tactics in dealing with other people, and value expediency above principles (O’Boyle et al. 2012).

Free-Riders of a Social System

Individuals with high DT features consistently violate the basic assumptions of a fair exchange relationship (Mealey 1995; O’Boyle et al. 2012). They are particularly apt to deceive and extract resources from the collective in a parasitic manner (Jones 2014). Although Machiavellians, narcissists, and psychopaths differ in emphasis and style, their basic strategy is one of exploitation of conspecifics. In humans, relationship-sustaining processes – cooperation, reciprocal altruism, compassion, and the need for inclusion – are evolutionarily stable strategies, but evolution also rewards those who employ more self-serving strategies under certain conditions. Thus, social exchange theory, which explains how relationships are initiated and sustained through the reliable exchange of rewards and the imposition of costs between individuals, is a likely framework for conceptualizing the impact of the DT on work behaviors (Blau 1964; Cropanzano and Mitchell 2005; Thibaut and Kelley 1959). The theory, applied to organizational settings, suggests that employees work in exchange for direct, concrete rewards such as pay, goods, and services as well as indirect, socioemotional rewards such as status and admiration (Settoon et al. 1996). These exchanges create relationships among employees and employers, which are strengthened when rewards are valued and costs are minimized, and when the relationships are based on trust, reciprocity, fairness, commitment, affective attachment, sense of loyalty, mutual support, and authentic concern for the other’s well-being (Cropanzano and Mitchell 2005). But Machiavellians, narcissists, and psychopaths do not play by these rules. They are unconstrained by ethical principles of fair exchange (Galperin et al. 2011). Malevolency in interpersonal contexts is the key to DT. They fill the ecological niche described by game theorists as the “cheater strategy” (Mealey 1995). They value rewards and costs differently than low DT individuals; they are willing to overlook obligations and reciprocity. When they start an enterprise, they do it from selfish and unproductive motivation, the motivation to appropriate value rather than to create it (Hmieleski and Lerner 2016). The fact that they get hired in the first place is not surprising, given that they embody such desirable qualities as charisma, dominance, vitality, energy, leadership, confidence, assertiveness, boldness, and impression management skills (Ames 2009; Jonason et al. 2012; Paulhus et al. 2013; Paunonen et al. 2006). Time-limited job interviews may not allow the darker sides of these individuals to be revealed (Harms et al. 2011; Jonason et al. 2012). Interestingly, also later they are not easily detected and dismissed (Boddy et al. 2010a). In fact, despite that they lack affective attachment and emotional commitment to others and they manipulate others, which as a result often undermines the binding influence of their interpersonal relationships, those who can successfully gain entry to organizations often quickly climb organizational ladders to reach senior managerial and leadership positions (Boddy 2010; Boddy et al. 2010a). One of the reasons why those toxic employees get ahead might be that they possess high political skills which are particularly valued by supervisors (Templer 2018).

DT personality traits are “overlapping but distinct constructs” (Paulhus and Williams 2002, p. 556). Each one represents a set of alternative, and usually socially condemned, interpersonal tendencies, so their relations to work behaviors are relatively similar, but the antecedents and mediators that sustain these relations might differ from one DT trait to another (O’Boyle et al. 2012). For instance, research suggests that despite that all three DT traits are related to propensity to unethical behavior, each of them affects different parts of the unethical decision-making process. Narcissism motivates individuals to act unethically for their personal benefit and changes their perceptions of their abilities to successfully commit fraud; Machiavellianism motivates and alters perceptions about the opportunities that exist to deceive others. Psychopathy impacts how individuals rationalize their fraudulent behaviors. Accordingly, the often coexisting DT elements act in concert as powerful psychological antecedents to fraud behaviors (Harrison et al. 2016).


Machiavellians tend to avoid careers that involve caring for others (Jonason et al. 2014) and instead are attracted to economics/business (Vedel and Thomsen 2017). Their penchant for manipulation might allow them to establish profitable social networks, win others’ trust, convince people, form alliances, thus increasing job performance (O’Boyle et al. 2012). They use a wide variety of manipulation tactics, both soft (such as charm, appearance, joking or kidding, exchange of favors, promise of reward, ingratiation, alliances, and offering compliments) and hard (threat of appeal, threat of punishment, manipulation of the person, and manipulation of the situation) to get ahead in their workplace (Jonason et al. 2012). Their cynical view on human nature and social justice, their unique moral outlook, makes them less motivated, more entitled to their job, and weakens their bonds with coworkers. They are less likely to trust that they will be paid back for any extra effort put in on the job (Gunnthorsdottir et al. 2002), which might diminish their motivation. Also, to the detriment of their job performance, they focus on political machination instead of work. Their abilities to manipulate do not parallel their willingness to manipulate (Austin et al. 2007). Despite that they do not engage in risky forms of cheating (Williams et al. 2010), their intrigues and violations of social principles (biased allocation of rewards, shirking obligations, reciprocity violations, etc.) tend to get detected and their connections to others get weakened. Having little sense of loyalty and commitment, they minimize their efforts and engage in interpersonal forms of CWB, mistreatment of coworkers and betrayal (Kish-Gephart et al. 2010). Indeed, research linked Machiavellianism with diminished organizational, supervisor, and team commitment (Zettler et al. 2011), “cutting corners” at work (Jonason and O’Connor 2017), increased unethical behavior (Shafer and Simmons 2008; Winter et al. 2004), along with a tendency to be perceived as abusive by subordinates (Kiazad et al. 2010). Despite these, Machiavellianism has been found beneficial for attaining leadership positions (Dahling et al. 2008; Spurk et al. 2016), possibly because Machiavellians tend to focus on maintaining and broadening power by using manipulative behaviors (Kessler et al. 2010), strive for control, and have a desire for status (Dahling et al. 2008). Contradictory findings link Machiavellianism with job satisfaction (e.g., Dahling et al. 2008; Spurk et al. 2016).

Metanalytic results confirm that Machiavellianism predicted low job performance and high CWB (O’Boyle et al. 2012). The Machiavellianism–job performance relation was small and not particularly consistent, while the Machiavellianism–CWB relation was more robust and consistent. Furthermore, organizational variables did not moderate the negative effects of Machiavellianism: Machiavellians were less productive and more likely to engage in negative workplace behaviors regardless of their level of authority or the degree of collectivism in the organization where they worked. Leaders’ Machiavellianism has detrimental effects on subordinates’ career success and well-being, including their job satisfaction (Volmer et al. 2016).


Narcissists believe that they are superior and outclass their fellow coworkers, so that rules of reciprocity and obligation do not apply to them, as they cannot be bothered by others’ needs (Campbell et al. 2000; Twenge et al. 2008). Because narcissists have delusions of grandeur, are elitist, hypercompetitive, and feel superior and entitled, and they violate principles of fair social exchange, theory links narcissism with poor work performance (O’Boyle et al. 2012); Rosenthal and Pittinsky 2006). Indeed, some researchers have linked increases in narcissism to unsatisfactory task performance (Judge et al. 2006), job dissatisfaction (Soyer et al. 2001), toxic leadership (Schmidt 2008), and a host of other negative work attitudes and outcomes. On the other hand, their engagement in self-promotion can gain them quicker advancement (Hogan and Kaiser 2005; De Vries and Miller 1986). They prefer to use soft manipulation tactics such as charm, enhancement of appearance, promise of reward, than hard forceful ones (Jonason et al. 2012) and they may do it successfully. They are not necessarily unproductive workers. In fact, they can make outstanding first impressions and may excel in selection contexts (Campbell et al. 2011), likely due to their charisma (Williams et al. 2018). Self-enhancement and impression management motivation can have powerful effect on their behavior. While highly narcissistic individuals generally perform fewer organizational citizenship behaviors (Judge et al. 2006; Min 2013; Qureshi et al. 2015; Yildiz and Öncer 2012), probably because they score lower in organizational trust (Yildiz and Öncer 2012), they may perform more of them to make a favorable impression in the workplace (Qureshi et al. 2015).

Narcissistic individuals are interested in artistic, enterprising, and social careers (Jonason et al. 2014), as well as economics/business (Vedel and Thomsen 2017). They are very good at “pitching” ideas to others even when their ideas are not necessarily superior to those of others (Goncalo et al. 2010). Narcissism may be both a blessing and a curse for aspiring entrepreneurs: thanks to their overconfidence and appetite for risk-taking narcissists ignore past failures and persist in entrepreneurial activities; however, these characteristics may also predict venture failure (Grijalva and Harms 2014; Hayward et al. 2010). The relation between narcissism and work-related outcomes is complex and depends on multiple factors. Narcissism does not generally predict actual task performance (Campbell et al. 2004; Chatterjee and Hambrick 2007; Farwell and Wohlwend-Lloyd 1998; Gabriel et al. 1994; Goncalo et al. 2010). However, it does so when risk-taking is likely beneficial or an opportunity for self-enhancement (i.e., admiration from evaluative audience, competition in a challenging task; Morf and Rhodewalt 2001) presents itself (Abeyta et al. 2017; Gerstner et al. 2013; Wallace and Baumeister 2002; Morf et al. 2000; Woodman et al. 2011; Nevicka et al. 2016). Indeed, under such conditions, narcissists surpass their low narcissistic counterparts.

Narcissists have a natural propensity to seek out leadership position (Campbell and Campbell 2009; Carroll 1987; Hogan et al. 1990) and emerge as leaders in groups (Back et al. 2010; Brunell et al. 2008; Chatterjee and Hambrick 2007; Deluga 1997; Grijalva et al. 2015; Judge et al. 2006; Nevicka et al. 2011a, b), in particular in times of uncertainty (Nevicka et al. 2013). Significant body of theory and research focused on narcissistic leadership. Contextual reinforcement model (Campbell and Campbell 2009; Campbell et al. 2011) and Energy Clash Model (Sedikides and Campbell 2017) highlight different aspects of the emergence and run of narcissistic leader. Both of these models predict disappointment or drop in popularity of the narcissistic leader with time, signalling these leaders’ problematic effectiveness. Theory proposed contextual factors which could significantly improve narcissistic leaders’ effectiveness benefitting both the narcissist and the organization: presence of organizational safeguards such as checks and balances, and executive training as well as strengthening the leader-employee fit (Grijalva and Harms 2014; Kets de Vries and Miller 1985; Sedikides and Campbell 2017). In optimal circumstances, narcissistic leaders may be potent change agents bringing boldness, vision, and innovation into the decision-making process (Sedikides and Campbell 2017). The type of industry also plays an important role, with dynamic, high-discretion, and creative industries that reward self-promotion and manipulativeness being a particularly good fit for narcissistic leaders (Chatterjee and Hambrick 2007; Jonason et al. 2014; Rosenthal and Pittinsky 2006; Zhou 2017).

Narcissists in position of authority may create multiple risks when left unchecked. CEO narcissism was positively related to unpredictable and irregular company performance (i.e., big wins, big losses) in accounting and shareholder returns, and tended to be positively related to big annual swings in accounting returns. Overall, companies under narcissistic CEOs did not do better than companies under less narcissistic CEOs (Chatterjee and Hambrick 2007). There is also overwhelming evidence suggesting that narcissists tend to derail in position of authority (Judge et al. 2009; O’Boyle et al. 2012; Schoel et al. 2015), when left unchecked. Narcissism has been linked to unethical behavior in CEOs (Blickle et al. 2006; Duchon and Drake 2008; Galperin et al. 2010). Because narcissists’ particular weak point is their difficulty maintaining positive interpersonal relationships over time as they lack empathy (Böeckler et al. 2017; Czarna et al. 2014a, b, 2015, 2016; Hepper et al. 2014a, b; Matosic et al. 2017), are impulsive and highly critical of others (Stoeber et al. 2015), mistreat and disparage subordinates even in the absence of self-threat (Park and Colvin 2015), narcissistic leaders can cause employee distress that leads to turnover intentions (Resick et al. 2009). Recent research showed that, contrary to some theorizing (Grijalva and Harms 2014), particularly followers with low self-esteem suffered most from narcissistic leaders which resulted in the followers’ reduced performance and more burnout symptoms (Nevicka et al. 2018). Finally, unethical employees can create an organizational culture where unethical behavior becomes the norm, especially when leaders or authority figures are misbehaving (Ashkanasy et al. 2006; Kish-Gephart et al. 2010). Altogether, moderate levels of narcissism contribute to leadership effectiveness, up to a maximum point beyond which narcissism becomes detrimental and therefore there exists an optimal, midrange level of leader narcissism (Grijalva et al. 2015).

Similarly at the team-level of analysis, narcissism has been shown to have a curvilinear relationship with creative performance (Goncalo et al. 2010). Despite that narcissism is generally unrelated to group or team performance (Brunell et al. 2008; Resick et al. 2009), the number of narcissists on a team turned out to have an inverted U-shaped relationship with team creative performance, such that having more narcissists is better for generating creative outcomes up to a point after which too many narcissists becomes detrimental (perhaps because they cause distracting conflict; Goncalo et al. 2010).

The relationship between narcissism and CWB is less complex and more unequivocal. Narcissists’ sense of entitlement and superiority increase the likelihood of “cutting corners” at work (Jonason and O’Connor 2017) and performing a variety of CWB such as embezzlement, workplace incivility, bullying, aggression, and white-collar crime (Blair et al. 2008; Blickle et al. 2006; Brunell et al. 2011; Campbell et al. 2005; Bogart et al. 2004; Judge et al. 2006; Penney and Spector 2002). Meta-analytic results confirmed a strong association between narcissism and CWB and found no straightfoward relationship between narcissism and job performance (O’Boyle et al. 2012). Individuals high in narcissism were much more likely to harm their organizations or organizational members than were individuals low in narcissism (Grijalva and Harms 2014). Since narcissists are hypervigilant to perceived threats and predisposed to interpret ambiguous stimuli as threatening (Bushman and Baumeister 2002; Judge et al. 2006), they are more likely to report organizational injustice and react to it implusively with anger and hostility because their perceptual biases lead them to perceive themselves and their performance more positively than do objective observers (Grijalva and Harms 2014). This mechanism is known to fuel CWB. An aspect of company culture called ingroup collectivism (IGC) turned out to moderate the relations between narcissism and both work outcomes: job performance and CWB. Narcissism was negatively (although weakly) associated with job performance in cultures that were higher in IGC, i.e., cultures which valued duty and loyalty to the organization and its members, cohesiveness among coworkers, and relatedness, fair reciprocal social exchange among peers, and which punished violations of these principles. However, as IGC increased, narcissists engaged in less CWB (Kish-Gephart et al. 2010; O’Boyle et al. 2012).

Narcissistic tendencies have been shown to positively associate with objective indices of professional success such as hierarchical position (Wille et al. 2013), and financial achievement (Hirschi and Jänsch 2015; Spurk et al. 2016; Wille et al. 2013) as well as with subjective career satisfaction (Hirschi and Jänsch 2015). This might also be explained by narcissists’ high self-efficacy beliefs, high career engagement, and high self-esteem (Hirschi and Jänsch 2015; Sedikides et al. 2004). When common variance with the other DT traits, age, gender, education, employment degree, work tenure and organization size were controlled for, narcissism was still significantly related to salary (Spurk et al. 2016).


Psychopaths’ insensitivity to others makes them less likely to act in ways that will please others or minimize their suffering (LeBreton et al. 2006). They consider life from the perspective of every man for himself and view people as either prey or fellow predators (Babiak and Hare 2006; Hmieleski and Lerner 2016). In their minds, only a fool cares about the needs of others; dominance and coercion are the way to achieve cooperation and for an individual to maximize his/her gains (Hmieleski and Lerner 2016). They want to win at all costs (Cangemi and Pfohl 2009). Psychopaths often have an enhanced ability to pick out individuals who are vulnerable or easily dominated which might allow them to identify victims whom they can take advantage of (e.g., employees, customers, suppliers) while offering little in return (Wilson et al. 2008). Although they occasionally use soft manipulation tactics: ingratiation and forming alliances, the tactics of their choice are hard ones: manipulation of the person, manipulation of the situation, threat of punishment, threat of appeal (Jonason et al. 2012). Theory links psychopathy with violent, aggressive, dangerous CWB, bullying, theft and sabotage (O’Boyle et al. 2012). Also, psychopaths’ inability to empathize and general low affectivity makes them immune to negative social feedback. They value social acceptance little and remain unconcerned with meeting social obligations and compliance with the norm of reciprocity. This characteristic can undermine their job performance by damaging their interpersonal relationships. Their disregard for the rights of other people and a lack of diligence and disdain for deadlines and responsibilities might hurt the quality of their work, especially in work settings where reliability, trust, loyalty, and mutual respect are critical. Thus, if their work evaluations depend, at least in part, on their ability to work well with others, psychopaths’ performance will likely be poor. Theory proposes that psychopaths may be environmentally limited in their possible actions in more collectivist organizations and societies (Boddy et al. 2010a; O’Boyle et al. 2012). However, if their work requires a rational, emotionless behavioral style, a consistent focus on achievement even if that achievement comes at the cost of harm to others, a willingness to take risks, and the social skills of the charismatic, their performance might be fine (DePaulo 2010; Yang and Raine 2008). Research suggests that psychopaths might be particularly interested in realistic and practical, often hands-on careers (Jonason et al. 2014), as well as economics/business (Vedel and Thomsen 2017). In fact, they often prosper in business and corporate settings (Wilson 2010). It has been suggested that 3.5% of top executives could be classified as expressing psychopathy (Babiak and Hare 2006; Babiak et al. 2010).

Contradictory empirical findings link psychopathy with hierarchical position and financial achievement, with some showing positive links (e.g. Boddy et al. 2010a; Wille et al. 2013) and others indicating that psychopaths are subject to constant intraorganizational repositioning and involuntary turnover (Spain et al. 2014), they earn low salaries and experience poor objective and subjective professional success (Spurk et al. 2016; Ullrich et al. 2008). Among the three DT features, psychopathy has been shown to be the strongest predictor of “cutting corners” at work (Jonason and O’Connor 2017). When common variance with the other DT traits and socio-demographic and organizational variables were accounted for, the negative links between psychopathy and low objective and subjective indicators of career success remained significant (Spurk et al. 2016). These effects might be due to their high impulsivity and low conscientiousness (Paulhus and Williams 2002; Spurk et al. 2016). Again, however, some researchers show that psychopathic fearless dominance is positively linked to subjective and objective professional success (Eisenbarth et al. 2018).

Metanalytic evidence of these relationships were, however, underwhelming. Psychopathy was weakly negatively related to job performance and positively to CWB (O’Boyle et al. 2012). Having a position of authority significantly exacerbated the association between psychopathy and CWB. Indeed, corporate psychopaths have been shown to have diminished levels of corporate social responsibility and engage in increased CWB (Smith and Lilienfeld 2013), and to adversely affect perceived organizational commitment to employees and productivity (Boddy 2010; Boddy et al. 2010a). Leaders’ psychopathy has detrimental effects on subordinates’ career success and well-being (Volmer et al. 2016). Metanalytic results provide little support for the proposed moderation of their behavior by organizational culture (O’Boyle et al. 2012).


The DT collectively explains very little variance in job performance (around 1%) with Machiavellianism and psychopathy being associated with lower job performance (O’Boyle et al. 2012). Narcissism does not generally predict actual task performance (Campbell et al. 2004; Chatterjee and Hambrick 2007; Farwell and Wohlwend-Lloyd 1998; Gabriel et al. 1994; Goncalo et al. 2010); its relation with work-related outcomes is complex and depends on multiple contextual factors, such as the presence of checks and balances in the company, the character of work and the type of industry, company culture, and likely even personalities of subordinates.

The DT explains a significant portion of the variance in CWB (around 27%) with all three traits being significantly associated with increased CWB and narcissism having the strongest link. Altogether, as O’Boyle et al. (2012) noticed, the small effect sizes for job performance suggest that the DT as currently operationalized is better apt to explain dark behavior, rather than positive behaviors such as task performance and citizenship behavior.

In the future, researchers might do well by examining how individuals high in any or all of the DT traits affect group dynamics and social networks. DT might have extended detrimental influence, because individuals high in a DT trait rely on inequitable exchanges to achieve desired outcomes, thus their influence is networked by definition (O’Boyle et al. 2012). Research examining the effect of the individual’s DT level on peers’, supervisors’, and subordinates’ productivity has been scarce (e.g., Nevicka et al. 2018).

Naturally, there is more to dark personality than just the Dark Triad. That said, use of the Dark Triad as a framework continues to predominate in the organizational sciences (e.g., O’Boyle et al. 2012). More research covering also less studied aberrant and toxic characteristics, such as borderline, paranoid, passive-aggressive, or obsessive-compulsive traits is warranted (Harms and Spain 2015).




The present work was supported by grant no. 2015/19/B/HS6/02214 from the National Science Center, Poland, awarded to the first author.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Applied Psychology, Faculty of Managament and Social CommunicationJagiellonian UniversityKrakowPoland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Anna Czarna
    • 1
  1. 1.Jagiellonian UniversityKrakowPoland