Unmasking Behaviours for Positive Outcomes


The ‘behavioural challenges’ faced by many organisations are as significant as the rewards associated with resolving them. As Business Leaders everywhere are finding, ignoring them, hiding them, or applying quick fixes won’t work in the age of global digital media and the transparency it forces.

Although, personality assessment has been a staple of management practice for decades, it has primarily been used in context of filtering candidates during recruitment. Consequently, and for various reasons, the value of personality data has failed to realise its potential. Further, to its detriment, past attempts to promote its use have led to the ‘dumbing-down’of crucial details which has compromised its true value.

Whatever the view, you can’t avoid the fact that influencing individual’s behaviours relies on individual level interventions. Even more important since the trend towards flatter hierarchical organisations increases demand on individual’s unique attributes and puts them in charge of their own personal development – or accept the risks of personal derailment.

A more effective approach to motivation and behavioural change is needed. An approach that can impact an individual’s behaviour by as much as one standard deviation, and where the benefits can transfer into the organisation by compiling across the entire working population, not simply those few people involved in recruitment cycles. Realising these benefits won’t be easy. They require considerable personal investment in gaining an improved understanding (learning), and nuanced (evidence based) approaches to addressing the evolving complexity of organisational group dynamics, and life in general.

This article shines a light on some of the implications of two important, interacting themes – Team Contexts and Personality. Since these are significant bodies of work representing a century and a half of research we can’t cover them comprehensively, but we can illuminate a few key issues and indicate potential pathways to the opportunities on offer; opportunities to address an extraordinarily challenging work-life context that has a profound impact on relationships, leadership, collaboration, performance and functioning, both within the workplace and out. This is a window on the potential solutions, the solutions themselves rely on you.


I wish I’d been given a £1 for every time I thought, said (or heard friends and colleagues say) “I am what I am” – usually in context of some thought, feeling, motivation or behaviour I was trying to understand, or justify.

Of course, this is partially correct. We inherit our genetic makeup and our personalities are simply a proxy for the underlying systems, neurological and biological, our genes help to create. It’s also the case that about fifty percent of our personality is heritable (from our parents to us and from us to our children) [1-4] and that our basic personality traits are relatively stable throughout our lives, post-adolescence, e.g. see Widiger [5, P.41].

However, stable doesn’t mean static. The behaviours typically associated with personality traits are highly dynamic, in the moment, because traits activate (switch on) and interactwith each other and with our environment – otherwise known as the ‘situational-environment’. This has a profound effect on our attitudes and behaviours and it this feature that presents us with challenges and provides us with opportunities.

Example – in my twenties, a random conversation I had with a friend in a pub stimulated sufficient motivation for me to stop smoking cigarettes (immediately), lose eighty-pounds in body weight, and adopt a work-out regime needed to compete in the Hawaiian Ironman World Triathlon Championships (where I somehow finished in the top fifteen-percent) just nine-months later and despite no previous athletic background, or ability to financially fund the trip. I don’t recall the precise moment in the conversation that lit me up but whatever it was I’m eternally grateful as I recognised how to repeat the learnings and integrate them into my life – which changed so dramatically that I can say I was a completely different person after that conversation, even though my underlying personality is largely unchanged even now. This is of immense importance to individuals and organisations. People can change attitudes and behaviours spontaneously and the impacts can be significant enough to be life-changing. This happens in our personal lives and in work contexts all of the time: –

Example – nobody starts a new job with the same attitudes and motivations they have in the final moments of their last day. Typically, they are polar opposites, or they wouldn’t be leaving. This difference is a direct consequence of the interactions between the individual’s personality traits and the environmental-situations experienced in the intervening period, both in their personal and professional lives. If people leave jobs for motivational reasons, it’s a direct consequence of the counter-productive situations created by the organisation – which is why employers have such a significant opportunity to make a positive difference to behavioural outcomes.

In summary, we can think about personality trait-related behaviours as being stable in the long term but dynamic enough in the short term to enable them to be influenced, positively or negatively, by environmental situations in ways that are not necessarily reflective of the underlying personality traits. Learning is an example of this kind of intervention, but there are a large number of other potential opportunities for individuals and organisations to change outcomes.

The Size of the Prize

The potential benefits associated with this type of individual level behavioural change are not insubstantial – trait related behaviours can change by as much as one standard deviation [5]. It doesn’t require much imagination to realise that this degree of change spread across a large number of people can make a material difference to all manner of organisational outcomes – positively or negatively. Get it right and you reap the rewards; get it wrong and you put reputations at risk (individual and brand) – as OXFAM and other aid organisations in the charity sector are discovering. Surely the incentives (to get it right and avoid getting it wrong) are enough to encourage organisational leadership to augment or discard some of the outdated, distal, one-size-fits-all organisation-level ‘people practices’ relied on today?

This starts with a change in thinking and a recognition that avoiding negative outcomes relies on understanding the causes. I’ve got no doubt that OXFAM, and organisations like it, already have stringent conduct rules. But they are irrelevant if they result in a weak trait-relevant situation (discussed below). The danger is that we will repeat past mistakes by focussing on the newsworthy symptoms rather than the causes. The symptoms may be sexual predation, exploitation, harassment, or the many other forms of abhorrent behaviour; but the causes are a consequence of the interaction between individual’s personality traits and the environmental situation in which they operate. Add a toxic mix of stress and a weak trait-relevant situation and everybody’s behaviour will change in ways that are uncharacteristic and, probably, undesirable.

What is being reported about OXFAM and other aid organisations is entirely predictable and, I’ll bet, the response will be entirely inappropriate. As you’ll see below, the charity sector isn’t the only vocational area at risk from inappropriate behaviours.


A century and a half of research of Teams and Personality has accumulated two vast bodies of knowledge. In both cases, these have largely targeted the precursors of important organisational outcomes such as: leadership, crucial performance outcomes, and/or emergent states such as trust, corporate citizenship behaviour, cohesion, etc. Similarly, personality research generally also focussed on which personality types might be predisposed to certain behaviours and outcomes, such as high performance, effective leadership, job satisfaction, etc.

Team Research

One might think that organisations are well placed to exploit this knowledge. Unfortunately, not. Long standing knowledge transfer issues have left management practitioners to fend for themselves and to adopt untested practices, often with mixed results. Indeed, widespread reports of the Global Decline in Productivity (see Google) might suggest that this wealth of knowledge is incidental or has little (positive) impact on organisational performance.

There are many reasons for this decline but, as we’ll outline below, a number of trends are compromising our collective understanding of how to elevate performance in organisational teams. Management practice has gone beyond the science needed to support it and we now have the alarming situation where the bulk of team research that is available to management practice relates to co-located teams – which don’t reflect how organisations actually work today. Applying learnings from one situation to another is unlikely to result in success – as we are finding.

This sits at the heart of how firms are organising themselves: to deal with the challenges posed by technology mediated communications; supporting virtual working arrangements; facilitating interactions between a dynamic and globally dispersed workforce; avoiding the negative consequences of over-collaboration; and coordinating individuals whose diversity creates impossibly complex variables.

Personality Research

Given all of the recent media reports of inappropriate behaviours of one kind or another, you could get the impression that we haven’t accumulated any knowledge of psychology and have little understanding of the influence of personality. This is surprising considering inter-personal behaviours rank amongst the most critical of life-skills underpinning our success as individuals.

The volume of knowledge about personality is of little help when research is produced by and for academics and clinicians. Consequently, it is either incomprehensible, inaccessible, or of such high resolution that it serves little practical purpose – unless you are already immersed in this subject matter. Frankly, it’s impossible to make sense of a world when it’s presented to you one pixel at a time.

Predictably this has resulted in misunderstandings, created confusion and misrepresentation of the facts, and it has led to: poor team-composition choices, dysfunctional relationships, declining mental health, degraded performance, motivation loss, and moral disengagement where any negative behaviour can be justified by those concerned [6-8].

Organisations have tried to take advantage of the vaunted benefits of personality assessment and they continue to do so, often with mixed results, a limited understanding of the practical and ethical challenges, and (perhaps) limited recognition of the array of compromises that are needed. For example: –

⇒  How does your firm balance the often conflicting personalities needed for the variety of roles in your organisation, e.g. client-facing roles – typically agreeable extraverts vs. the profiles associated with work with high technical content (scientific/analytical/IT related) – typically conscientious, disagreeable introverts [9]?

⇒  What are the leadership challenges resulting from contrasting personality types and what is the impact on organisational climate?

⇒  How does your firm mitigate for the cultural differences in a highly diverse workforce, and accommodate the widely differing worldview impacting planning, problem solving, decision making and social interactions [10-26]?

⇒  How does your firm address the needs of employees presenting more extreme forms of personality, such as those on the autistic spectrum who are highly represented in analytical and/or technical functions [27, 28]?

⇒  How does your firm mitigate the risks associated with the impact of stress and weak proximal situations?

Opportunities Missed?

Based on experience and learning, there is almost a universal misapplication of personality assessments. For example, personality tests remain a staple of the recruitment process despite long standing concerns and advice to the contrary [29]. Given the cost of recruitment failure, one can only wonder how many promising candidates are rejected in preference to individuals with ‘dark’ personality types who, ironically, are exceptionally adept at impression management and job interviews [30-34].

Are the OXFAM issues a consequence of recruitment failure or did OXFAM fail to ensure that the trait-relevant situations presented to staff were of sufficient strength to maintain appropriate behaviours?

Personality data provides valuable insights into individuals behavioural potential, but it has been misapplied and under-utilised for far too long.

Frothy, superficial solutions to problematic behaviours are ineffective in today’s environment where sustainable results are preferable to volatile short-terms gains, where cameras and real-time social-media reports exposes every deviation, and where ‘consistently great’ is the required standard.

There is a significant opportunity to address these issues and we can all benefit from the insights provided by personality data. Used ethically, sensitively, and effectively, increasing understanding of trait related behaviours will empower individuals to own the impacts of their behaviours, better understand their predispositions, and provide them with a greater range of choices they might otherwise believe they have.

Individual level behaviours need individual level interventions, and this is considerably more efficient than the organisational level approach to influencing employee behaviour from a distance – because it’s easy. This allows organisations to commit resources to maintaining the necessary situational environment needed to elicit the kinds of motivations and behaviours the organisation wants, while avoiding those they don’t.

Nobody goes to work intending to have a bad day. Nobody looks for a job that makes them unhappy. I believe that most people want to understand how they can be more successful. Why not help them by sharing the knowledge we have about personality? You can’t rationalise behaviour if you don’t understand its source.

A Changing Landscape

Teams are ubiquitous, but organisations are adopting changes to their operating environments, which significantly impact team working and the social-interactions between team members. This has a severe (negative) impact on management practice as the speed of these changes surpasses the ability to explain the antecedents of performance. Worst yet, the associated failure costs are often masked by hidden factors and unintended consequences, i.e. conflict, de-motivation, moral-disengagement, dysfunctional behaviour, etc. For example: –

a)    The increasing role of the knowledge economy [35-37] results in increasing task uncertainty and task complexity [38]. This increases demand on the team’s cognitive ability, on the quality and quantity of social-interactions between team members, and on particular personality traits that are complementary to uncertain situations.

b)    Globalisation [39, p.301] results in the fragmentation and distribution of core processes; it increases diversity (cultural and functional) [40-44]; and brings a wide range of other challenges associated with maintaining effective social-interactions between diverse stakeholder groups.

c)    De-layering of hierarchical structures [45-48] results in decreased leadership and flat, wide structures with increased team size – where increased team size is known to be decretive to performance due to the exponential relationship between team size and interaction volume [6, 49-56]. This degrades performance through over-collaboration and burnout.

Each of these factors significantly influence the behaviours of individuals exposed to them, positively and negatively.

Collaboration: More isn’t Better

As businesses become increasingly global and cross-functional silos break down, connectivity is increasing, and organisational success relies on effective teamwork. According to data collected over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by more than 50% [57], creating concerns that collaboration is having a negative impact on productivity, especially amongst the knowledge workers who are a significant and growing segment of the global economy [37]. Knowledge workers are said to be spending so much time collaborating that they are unable to complete their work during normal working hours [58]. Given the reports about globally declining productivity [59], and that organisational bureaucracies are increasing not declining [60], there is an forming view that collaboration is becoming counter-productive.

Given the extent of the association between collaboration and organisational team working, it is crucial to understand this dynamic and what might be done to negate performance loss. More collaboration not only depletes resource capacity, it also increases the risk associated with the increased volume of inter-personal interactions, including conflict, dysfunctional relationships, burnout and colleague attrition.

Distributed (Virtual) Working

The impact of the increase in virtual working is not trivial. Surveys suggest that more than 66% of all employees may now be working virtually [61, 62], and 80% of participants believe this trend will continue [63].

As important as the statistics is the impact, positive and negative, that distributed working has on organisational performance. For example, virtual working positively impacts performance by reducing cost, boosting productivity, increasing diversity and spreading demand on scarce, specialised resources. Conversely, these benefits come at a price, since members of distributed teams usually have multiple roles, i.e. between 65% [64] and 95% [65] of knowledge workers participate in multiple teams simultaneously. The ambiguity associated with knowledge work negatively impacts role complexity, creates role and goal conflict, and increases stress, especially for those individuals with low tolerance of uncertainty, or stress. For example, studies of matrix organisations report that the complex decision-making processes within matrix management structures result in role conflict, ambiguity, negative attitudes, motivational loss, moral disengagement, and other factors known to degrade performance [6, 7, 66-72].

The increasing trend in virtual working sit uncomfortably alongside reports that the majority of virtual teams suffer some form of performance failure. For example, the Gartner Group found that 50% of virtual teams fail to achieve their goals [73: p.268]. More recent reports suggest that failure rates may actually be as high as 82% [74].

This is extraordinary. Although technology brings together diverse, dispersed team members, virtual teams have difficulty: collaborating effectively, gaining a shared understanding of tasks and goals [75: p.806] and/or maintaining the necessary levels of trust and social-cohesion between team members [76-79]. This is exacerbated by the personality profiles of technical resources that tend to be engaged in virtual working while relying on pro-social behaviours at all times.

Pro-Social Behaviours

Individually and in combination, these factors create ambiguous operating conditions and can lead to a wide range of undesirable outcomes. Reflecting this, pro-social behaviour has become a core capability for everyone that operates in this type of environment. This is so fundamental to how these organisation structures operate that social inter-connectednesshas developed organisational currency – Social Capital [80].


The quest to understand what kind of human we are has roots in antiquity. While understanding what makes us human has preoccupied the thoughts of philosophers, existential questions like these may not preoccupy the thoughts of the rest of us as we go about our daily lives. Perhaps the developing epidemics in Narcissism [81-87], Depression [88-96], and increased prevalence of psychopathy [97: p.338, 98-102], will change this in future as we grapple with the consequences for society.

What is Personality?

Most people probably have some understanding of what personality means. It surrounds us, both in and out of the workplace, but, like motivation, personality is inherently psychological, so it cannot be observed directly even though its effects can be seen everywhere.

There are many definitions of personality, for example: –

individual’s characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behaviour, together with the psychological mechanisms behind those patterns [103, 104].

So, personality drives and directs behaviour and, as a cause of people’s actions, it is intrinsically motivational. Secondly, personality is involved in determining how people react to different situations.

These processes are referred to as Trait Activation [TAT; 105, 106] and Trait Interaction [105]. They are explained in more detail below but in simple terms personality is characterised by traits and traits manifest as observable behaviours in response to trait-relevant Situational factors.

Example – an extravert will only behave in ways that are consistent with trait extraversion if they are in the company of others and have an opportunity to socialise. Trait extraversion won’t activate in the absence of an opportunity to be sociable.

Example – in order to be able to function in war zones and other natural disasters, individuals must have a combination of traits that are consistent with whatever tasks are needed to be provided in those extremely challenging environmental conditions. In other words, the environmental situations activate the necessary traits and result in the motivations needed to overcome sometimes overwhelming challenges. BUT, this also requires special consideration of the other situational factors that need to be in place to avoid the abhorrent behaviours associated with such traits. You don’t put a fox into a hen-house unless you are confident it won’t kill all the other chickens!

How well do we know ourselves?

Perhaps most people do have some understanding of what personality is, but it tends to be extremely limited, especially when it comes to recognising the impacts of our own behaviours. An interesting example of this is provided in a case study by Costa and Piedmont [107] (in a text by Wiggins [108]).

…The Case of ‘Madeline G’…

Madeline G. was an engaging, inspirational, colourful, high-flying and intriguing professional woman. At the time she undertook her assessment, she was a Civil Rights Lawyer, newly employed in a prestigious New York law firm, and she was living with her common law husband in what she felt was a mutually successful and satisfying relationship.

Madeline completed a personality assessment based on the Five Factor Model (FFM) and her husband also completed a version with Madeline as the subject. (NOTE – The FFM is the most widely researched model of personality and the NEO PI version comes in two styles, one for use as a self-report tool (i.e. Madeline describing herself), the other is completed by another person describing Madeline. In Madeline’s case, her husband.)

What was striking was the sharp discrepancy in their respective FFM profiles – Madeline view of herself, and her partner’s view of her. Madeline described herself in a very positive light, whereas her husband, not so much. Whereas she described herself as being high in trust and altruism, her husband described her as being very low. Whereas she described herself as being high in warmth, he described her as very low. Whereas she described herself as being high to very high in competence, dutifulness, self-discipline, and deliberation, he described her as being low to very low on each of these facets of trait conscientiousness. These sharp discrepancies did not bode well for a successful relationship and, if her husband was correct, did not bode well for Madeline.

The publication of Wiggins’ book was delayed by at least three years after the assessments were conducted. In that time, Madeline’s life had changed dramatically. At the time of the assessment she was a rising star in the legal profession. However, subsequent to the assessment “Madeline and her boss had agreed that Madeline wasn’t capable of being an employee” [109, p.317]. Approximately eighteen months after the assessment, her husband left her, much to Madeline’s surprise and substantial dismay. Given Madeline’s training and career success, one might have expected Madeline to have a developed an acute sense of self-awareness. The reality was quite the opposite. Madeline did not appear to have a clue as to her husband’s critical view of her, nor was she aware that a great deal of his perception of Madeline was shared by her boss and work colleagues [5, p.559].

I meet people like Madeline G., every day. Individuals that are oblivious to their own personality makeup while being insensitive to and/or intolerant of the individual differences of those around them. I can also empathise with Madeline. There are times throughout my career when I’ve been so focussed on a task, or goal that was important to me, that I’ve been oblivious of the impact of my own behaviours. Looking in the mirror and balancing any differences between the perception we have of ourselves compared to the perception others have of us is notoriously difficult and challenging.

Given the importance to life outcomes, why wouldn’t help individuals to understand themselves, and put reliable processes in place to help them be successful?

Personality and Mental Health

Personality psychology is typically excluded from the general educational curriculum and the resulting lack of understanding isn’t helped by a clinical profession mainly concerned with categories of disorders – and you either have a disorder or you don’t. Consequently, it is easy to misunderstand that the myriad facets of our personality sit on a spectrum represented by a continuous scale where the extreme poles of any trait will present itself in terms of impaired function. If we did understand this better, perhaps there would be less stigma associated with mental health and more tolerance of people perceived to be different.


It’s also unhelpful that many of the labels associated with personality traits have a pejorative connotation that promotes stigma and negative associations. The psychologists that produced the seminal works defining these traits clearly failed to anticipate their traits might one day be useful to everyone, not just the clinical world. It is increasingly important that we move past the stigma associated with common trait labels like: psychopathy, narcissism, and neuroticism – because it is hampering the development of knowledge, they play an important role in everybody’s trait makeup, and they are not necessarily negative.

Understanding our trait makeup, and that of the important people with whom we spend our time, can help us to maintain and develop those important relationships while avoiding the conflict and emotional upheaval associated with relationship failures. Such knowledge supports improved risk assessment, better informs the choices we make, and helps us understand our response to challenging traumatic events. In a nutshell: –

⇒  Personality is expressed in terms of behaviour

⇒  Behaviour is characterised in terms of personality traits

⇒  Personality traits manifest themselves in conjunction with trait relevant situations and they are assessed on a continuous scale

⇒  The extreme form of any trait, i.e. a trait presenting at either the high or low end of the scale, may result in maladaptive personality that in the most extreme forms might be classified (by clinicians) as a disorder

⇒  Disorders manifest in terms of impaired function and require clinical interventions

BUT…traits don’t have to be extreme enough to present as a disorder before function is impacted, mental health is degraded, or behaviour is sufficiently anti-social to compromise relationships. For example, stress response adds to the many shades of grey that we all have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. How does your firm address these? What arrangements does it have to address more extreme forms of trait related behaviours, or extreme situations that result in unpredictable behaviours?

Small Steps

The general lack of understanding of what mental health means is a challenge. I would argue that mental health can be broadly defined in terms of who we are as individuals, how and under what conditions we are different from everybody else.

We are all aware that certain personality types require a minimal increase in stress, or excitement, before usually compliant individuals behave uncharacteristically, e.g. road rage incidents and moments of intense competition are classic examples of the interaction between personality traits and situational factors resulting in dramatic changes in behaviour.

Progress is being made but there is much to do. For example, the American Psychological Association recently aligned the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) [110], with the most prolifically researched model of personality, the Five Factor Model (FFM) [111-117]. This major development will help to bridge the gap in understanding of the complex relationships between FFM personality traits and clinical (Axis I) disorders, including: personality disorder, depressive, bipolar, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, eating disorders, schizophrenia, psychoticism, trauma, stress, and substance use disorders [1].

[Note 1] There is an impressive literature examining the relationships between the Five Factor Model (FFM) of personality and clinical disorders – see Thomas A. Widiger (2017) – The Oxford Handbook of the Five Factor Model, (p. 479). Oxford University Press – for an extensive explanation of the evolution of the FFM and its relationship to AXIS I disorders.

Knowing your personality well enough to have a sense of what constitutes acceptable behaviour is important as this typifies everybody that doesn’t have a clinically diagnosed disorder. The reality is that normality has extremes in each of the social groups we cohabit, and our response fluctuates in response to the situations we face. This is what defines the immense variety of preferences and behaviours associated with being a human, and a member of the complex and fragmented societies in which we live. Finding sensitive ways to accommodate this variety is becoming the new norm: –

⇒  Approximately 1 in 68 of us has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), such as  Aspergers, demand avoidance, and learning difficulties like dyslexia, to the extent that it impairs normal function. We don’t really know the distribution of the autistic spectrum in the general population because it is not assessed – but we do know that autism is significantly more prevalent than was previously understood.

⇒  There are estimates that about 2% to 3% of the general population have clinical levels of OCD, and c15% have anxiety disorders. Again, there is no data on the distribution of these traits in the general population.

⇒  Between 15% and 39% of us has a  Personality Disorder (PD) severe enough to impair our normal function. Again, we don’t have data on the distribution in the general population.

⇒  4% of CEOs are clinically psychopathic, and 1 in 25 are clinically sociopathic, but there are estimates that the actual number could be as high as 15%. Again, we have no idea how this trait is distributed in the general population but, on the basis that it is measured on a continuous scale, we can confidently assume the challenge is bigger than we think.

The jobs we choose

It’s common sense that we will gravitate to jobs where we can be successful and, as we accumulate life-experience, we get a better sense of what makes us tick.

Those that are successful and rise to the top of their profession tend to have many attributes in common. But, it is also the case that the traits underpinning that success also has a dark side and an increasing number of reports suggest that individuals will gravitate towards professions where their traits give them a significant competitive advantage [118-123]. This means that, unchecked by trait-relevant situations, we can expect those same traits will manifest as anti-social, self-serving behaviours – and we shouldn’t be surprised when they do. For example, there is an emerging understanding that individuals ranking highly in the Dark Triad personality traits, narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism, are highly represented within certain professions and jobs [102, 119-130]: –

Understandably, the stigma associated with these dark trait labels typically means that business professionals reject any association with them. This neither makes sense (all traits fit on a continuous scale) nor is it supported by the evidence – just go to Google and you’ll find innumerable accounts of corporate scandal, abuse, breaches of trust and serious crimes in all of these areas. This isn’t coincidence.

Of course, it doesn’t mean everyone in these professions will behave badly. It simply means that those individuals with extreme variants of certain personality traits are not predisposed to behave like everybody else. They are motivated differently, and this has the potential for extremely positive and negative behavioural outcomes. What makes them great can also result in them derailing.

As another example, the clinical view of Autism requires an individual to meet specific criteria for a positive diagnosis. However, there is considerable evidence for the existence of a broader autism classification. In this respect, clinically diagnosed cases are simply extreme scores on an underlying continuous scale – a spectrum. Furthermore, studies of non-autistic relatives of autistic cases have shown behavioural similarities across the family group [131]. This suggests that autism, and the behaviours associated with it, are much more prevalent in society than we think. Extending the point about personality types gravitating towards professions where they can be successful, autism has been found to occur more often in individuals involved in technical/analytical professions requiring high levels of numerical, analytical and scientific content [27] e.g. maths, physics, accountancy, data science, and IT [132]. This humorously parodied in the US Sitcom – The Big Bang Theory. Who we are is (often) reflected in what we do, whether that is a job or the habits we have. How does your firm accommodate the individual differences associated with individuals who typically work in the jobs that have high technical or analytical content?

Diversity or Homophily?

The saying goes ‘birds of a feather flock together’.

In the field of psychology, this phenomenon is known as Homophily: –

Homophily from Ancient Greek ὁμοῦ (homou, “together”) and Greek φιλία (philia, “friendship”) is the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others. More than 100 studies have observed homophily in some form or another and they have robustly established that similarity leads to social connectedness and this is explained in theory.

Homophily is further clarified by Attraction-Selection-Attrition Theory (ASA) [133], and Similarity Attraction Theory (SAT) [134-136]. Although each theory is distinct, they share a view that people are attracted to people who are similar, rather than dissimilar, to themselves. In real life, this translates into people with particular personality profiles congregating with those that have similar and complimentary personality profiles. Consequently, it’s not uncommon to find situations in organisations where, despite a stated goal of promoting diversity, the opposite occurs, and organisations become more homogenous in their trait makeup [137, P.159]. Over time, this can become a defining feature of their organisation culture – which can be a source of competitive advantage, or a serious risk to brand reputation.

Example 1 – Company A, the entire senior leadership team of this Global organisation was comprised of individuals with the same Dominant trait. No surprise then that the team struggled with unproductive conflict, destructive politics, negative competition and a generally poor level of collaboration and decision making.

Example 2 – Company B, the management structure was mainly comprised of high scoring extraverts while the rest of the organisation was broadly made up of individuals with low trait extraversion, i.e. introverts. Again, you can imagine the challenging organisational climate, and the messages emanating from employee engagement surveys.

Homophily poses a considerable dilemma for organisations since, over time and contrary to strategic intent, diversity will diminish [138] and the organisation will become more homogenous.

What are Personality Traits?

Personality traits are defined as:

stable individual-difference constructs that reflect reliable and distinct habits, consistencies, or patterns in a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours over time and across situations. [146, P.11]

Measured on a continuous scale, Personality trait labels apply to a conceptual average or tendency of a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours across time and situations.

As part of a larger hierarchy, Personality is a domain level construct that manifests in terms of Personality Traits – see Figure 1 below.

Trait Interaction

In Trait Interaction Theory, interactions between people and the environmental situations are reciprocal, i.e. environmental situations influence trait related behaviours and behaviours influence the environment [133].

Trait Interaction is singularly the biggest challenge we face in using personality data reliably in practice – which may explain why it has failed to realise its potential. The main reason for this is the immense variety of situational factors that traits can interact with and the lack of a reliable taxonomy of trait relevant situations explaining how personality traits interact with the situational environment to influence individual behaviours [139].

Example – in recruitment, personality assessment data is used in conjunction with information drawn from job specifications as a means of matching situational factors with personality traits. However, this one-dimensional view is too simplistic to make reliable predictions about future behaviours and performance. For example, how do you assess the impact of stress from the operating environment? How do you anticipate the behavioural impacts of huge financial incentives on risk taking and agentic behaviour? How do you anticipate the long term behavioural impact of destructive social relationships – with a colleague or a leader?

Many such factors occur at a level that can’t be addressed at the organisation’s level of abstraction, e.g. corporate policies, practices and procedures are appropriate in some situations, but not others. Early research focused on the relative influence of personality compared with the strength of the situation in determining behaviour and it is this that lies at the very core of management challenge: –

⇒  In strong situations where behaviour is constrained, either implicitly or explicitly, everybody will behave in the same way, regardless of their unique personalities. In contrast, in weak situations where there are few (or no) constraints, an individual’s behaviour is more likely to be guided by their personality alone. Therefore, weak situations have little influence over behaviour, which is typically a reflection of the individual’s personality traits [140]. Trait expression is observed in overt behaviours that can either be performance related, irrelevant to performance [141], or counter-productive to goals and objectives [105].

⇒  An example of a strong situation would be a law, or a rule, aimed at an individual that is typically compliant, i.e. and individual that is conscientious. The interaction between a law that the individual accepts is important (the situational factor), and the individual’s degree of trait conscientiousness will motivate compliant behaviour. However, that same individual will not be as motivated to comply if they do not see the law as important, or if other factors moderate their motivation, e.g. moral disengagement. Equally, an individual that has very low trait conscientiousness is unlikely to comply with the law at all.

Trait Activation

Trait Activation Theory [TAT; 105, 106] builds on theories of motivation [142-145] by explaining that personality traits only express as behaviours when situations are trait-relevant [106, 146, 147]. In other words, trait-relevant cues within environmental situations activate traits that are then expressed as pertinent behaviours [148: p.1146].

Example – a salesperson attending a business event that’s also attended by lots of potential clients provides the salesperson with the opportunity to express the extraverted behaviours necessary to socialise with and establish client relationships. In response, an extraverted salesperson would be motivated to be sociable. The higher the salesperson’s trait extraversion, and the more potential clients, the greater the salesperson’s motivation to behave sociably. So, trait extraversion is activated by the environmental situation (the business event attended by lots of potential clients) providing opportunities to be sociable. If there were few or no potential clients for the salesperson to be sociable with, the trait cannot be activated and therefore the level of motivation would be correspondingly low.

Tett and Burnett [105] and Tett and Guterman [106] explained this with their model of Trait Activation. They say that trait relevant differences among situations influence the expression of traits as behaviours. Therefore, a trait that is present will remain latent/dormant (i.e. it won’t be expressed as a behaviour) unless a trait relevant situation stimulates it – which is why behaviour is somewhat predictable. If you know the trait, and understand the situation, and have a view of their relative strength of both, you can generally predict the behaviour.

Simply considering personality in isolation of situational variables is pointless. Making meaningful predictions about behaviours requires the consideration of both personality, situational characteristics within the environment [141: p.926] and the relative strength of both.

The Five Factor Model of Personality Traits (FFM)

Research into personality and its assessment has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. This is largely due to the development of advanced statistical techniques (such as Confirmatory Factor Analysis (CFA), and Structural Equation Modelling (SEM)), which have enabled a clearer and more reliable view of the sub-components of personality. It is this that has led to the development of a reliable conceptualisation of personality known as the Five Factor Model (FFM), sometimes referred to as The Big Five [2].

The FFM is illustrated in the adjacant diagram and includes the traits: Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Emotional Stability (Neuroticism), and Openness to Experience, along with the associated facets for each trait. Compared with other personality scales, the FFM is the most widely researched model of personality to date and studies have evaluated the explanatory effects of each of these traits against a wide variety of organisational outcomes.

If you’re unfamiliar with The Big Five and you’d like to know more, follow this link – The Big Five Personality Traits.


Bright and Dark Personality Traits

Personality traits have a bright and a dark side [159], and therefore can be positive and negative in terms of the behaviours that they manifest. As a general rule, any trait that is presented at its extreme pole is considered to be a dark trait as it can manifest in aberrant behaviour. To make sense of the complexity of personality and behaviour, a nuanced view is required to appreciate the range of tendencies and implications of each situation [160]. This is illustrated in the table below: –


The Bright Side of Conscientiousness

The importance of conscientiousness as a psychological construct is indisputable when considering its predictive ability for many important life-outcomes, such as diet, health, longevity and mortality risk, academic achievement, occupational success, marital stability, earning potential and even wealth [5, P.133]. Trait conscientiousness represents a family of constructs (lower-level facets within a hierarchical structure) that describes individual differences in the propensity to be self-controlled, responsible to others, hardworking, orderly, and rule abiding.

Conscientiousness represents the degree to which individuals are: achievement oriented, self-motivated, persevering, hard-working, thorough, orderly, punctual, dependable, responsible, and self-disciplined [112, 151, 152]. Individuals high in conscientiousness set themselves high standards, strive to achieve their goals, and are well organised. In contrast, individuals low in conscientiousness tend to be disorganised, easy-going, and sometimes careless.

Team member conscientiousness combines additively such that the higher the mean level of conscientiousness within the team, the more effectively the team is likely to perform [151, 153-166]. Even moderate levels of trait conscientiousness will result in effort and perseverance towards goal achievement [160, 162, 166-168], task commitment [169, 170], cooperation [168], and adaptability in the face of change [167].

Trait conscientiousness also functions as a supplementary trait in that high variance (some team members working hard and some not working hard) may result in the high-conscientious team members lowering their effort through moral disengagement (i.e. social loafing, shirking, or free riding [68, 69, 160, 162, 168, 171-173]). Similarity at the positive pole of conscientiousness is central to effective team performance, therefore minimizing conscientiousness variance at the positive pole should result in higher team performance [174].

The Dark Side of Conscientiousness

The extreme high and low poles of the trait are referred to as the Dark Side of Conscientiousness, where individuals tend to lack flexibility, readiness and/or willingness to change and accept new ideas, each of which are likely to be unacceptable in many work situations.

Both high and low extremes of personality are known to be associated with maladaptive personality functioning [175, 176] including: workaholism, perfectionism, and compulsivity at the high end, and laxness, negligence, and irresponsibility at the opposite extreme. A number of studies have demonstrated a curvilinear relationship of conscientiousness with problematic outcomes and decreased performance. In the most extreme forms, conscientiousness has been associated with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder(OCPD) [177].


The Bright Side of Agreeableness

The six facets of Agreeableness within the FFM are labelled: altruism, compliance, modesty, straightforwardness, tender-mindedness, and trust.

The trait of agreeableness reflects kindness, trust, and warmth versus selfishness, distrust, and hostility. Persons high on agreeableness are considerate, honest, helpful, and supportive, courteous, friendly, tolerant, cooperative, considerate, modest, trustworthy, helpful, altruistic, empathetic, caring [112]; they are typically non-competitive [178] and conflict averse in their social interactions with others [179].

Trait agreeableness is highly desirable in team settings as it positively influences social processes and contextual performance [163], some researchers have claimed that agreeableness may in fact be the best primary predictor of performance in interpersonal settings [162, 180]. Thus, agreeableness seems to have high predictive validity for tasks that involve cooperation and that involve smooth relations with others [155]. Compared to the other four traits, agreeableness may be the most concerned with interpersonal relationships [181] since it predicts social-role behaviours [182, 183]. Consequently, agreeable team members tend to adopt socially-based roles [184] and excel at: interpersonal facilitation [158, 161, 180, 185], cooperation [154, 162, 170, 186], conflict resolution [154, 162, 170], open communication [162], information seeking [170], compliance with team goals and goal alignment [166, 187]. Empirical studies on the relationship between agreeableness and team outcomes have yielded mixed results [188] although some studies generally confirm that higher levels of trait agreeableness lead to higher team performance [154, 161, 162, 166, 178, 189].

The Dark Side of Agreeableness

In contrast, individuals who are low in agreeableness tend to be direct, uncaring, intolerant, unsympathetic, critical, sceptical, hard-headed, push limits, are openly hostile, and competitive [190], and are consequently viewed by other to be less socially desirable [181]. This is said to be the Dark Side of agreeableness.

While having one team member who is exceptionally high on agreeableness may not have a profound effect on team performance, having a team member who is exceptionally low on agreeableness may be disruptive and lead to ineffective performance.

As a final word of caution, all is not rosy with this trait as extremely high variants of trait agreeableness have been found to be detrimental to performance outcomes [191-194] and it is not a trait that is in great abundance amongst organisational leadership [195].


The Bright Side of Extraversion

Of all the Big Five traits, extraversion is probably the best known and is characterized by energy, dominance, spontaneity, and sociability, whereas more introverted individuals tend to be described as more lethargic, inhibited, reflective, and quiet.

In the work place it is particularly important to the smooth functioning of the social mechanisms within organisational teams and it is strongly linked to inter/intra-team processes and contextual performance (i.e. performance relating to the social environment in which teams operate) [196].

This trait is characterised as the extent to which individuals are: assertive, active, friendly, enthusiastic, energetic, upbeat, optimistic, social, talkative, high spirited and generally outgoing, [112]. Extraversion is related to greater marriage satisfaction, but also to higher rates of infidelity. Extraverts like to be around people most of the time, they crave excitement and stimulation and tend to be of a cheerful disposition, although they don’t cope well with sleep deprivation or perform well with tasks requiring a high level of vigilance. Consequently, a team composed of individuals who are warm, friendly and socially adept (high sociability) should lead to more effective team interaction, faster problem resolution and higher performance. On the other hand, a team composed of persons who are dominant and assertive can lead to friction and result in a team composed of all leaders and no followers [154, 169]. Research suggests that dominant team members engender less positive interpersonal relations and are less likely to attend to the task inputs of other team members in decision making.

In contrast, individuals who have low levels of extraversion are said to be introverted as they are: reserved, introspective, serious, they value privacy, prefer to be alone or in the company of just a few close friends [112]. Consequently they tend to have less developed social skills [197], find it more difficult to approach and engage others in social interactions [198], attain lower status in social groups [199]; and, as they tend to find social situations unfulfilling, they tend to avoid them [200]. Extreme introversion is defined by characteristics such as social withdrawal, social detachment, intimacy avoidance, restricted affectivity, anhedonia and is related to anxiety and depression.

Extraversion influences interpersonal interactions and the development of relationships. It is especially beneficial in work situations that require: high performance expectations [153, 154, 169], team processes and team working – such as seeking help from other team members or teams [201]. Because of this, extroverted individuals: are attracted to team working [202], they stimulate discussion within the team [160, 170], foster a climate in which other team members feel confident to express themselves [169], and they are critical to the quality of decision making within the team [203]. Extraverts are often credited with high status in organisations as they gravitate to leadership roles [195, 199, 204, 205]. While extraversion is related to sociability, this does not mean that introverts do not value social interactions, nor that introverted behaviour is inherently asocial. Introverts actually talk as much as extraverts in one-on-one situations, but, as group size increases, more extraverted individuals spend a disproportionately large amount of time talking.

In a team setting, the most favourable composition is a high variance in extraverts, with few very high extraverts, and preferably none that are extremely low.

The Dark Side of Extraversion

Despite the positive benefits associated with extraverted individuals, the inclusion of many high extroverts in a team is detrimental to performance outcomes because extroverts tend to like to work in teams merely for the social interaction it provides them [161] which can divert attention from work goals [160, 169]. Their tendency to be talkative and assertive means that extroverts are dominant [206], so having many dominant individuals in a team can result in conflict about a variety of team issues [207] such as emergent leadership [160, 169]. Furthermore, because extraverts have a higher team profile compared to introverts [208], this may draw them into conflict and make them an easy target for negative attitudes [209] and unproductive behaviour.

Research into the Dark Side of extraversion [210, 211] finds that in a work setting, the negative attributes of high extraverts, i.e. their inability/unwillingness to listen to others, their unreceptiveness to the input of others, etc., degrades their high status as time goes by. This is particularly the case in situations where high degrees of interpersonal interaction are required [212: p.389].

Extreme high variants of trait extraversion pose risks for maladaptive personality, as individuals at this end of the continuum are more likely to be sexually promiscuous, emotionally intrusive, and engage in excessive self-disclosure and thrill-seeking behaviours. They are also more likely to have difficulties with substance abuse, possibly due to their elevated reward-seeking tendencies and associations with dopaminergic function.

Emotional Stability (Neuroticism)

The Bright Side of Emotional Stability

Trait emotional stability is manifested as a tendency to be secure, calm, self-confident and poised while avoiding excessively negative emotions such as: anxiety, sadness, embarrassment, vulnerability, frustration, anger, hostility, guilt, disgust, depression, the inability to cope with stress, poor impulse control and the propensity to have irrational ideas. Each of these are embodiments of the low pole of emotional stability, otherwise referred to as neuroticism [166, 168, 190].

High emotional stability has been associated with a number of phenomena related to interpersonal facilitation and interaction. This trait may therefore contribute positively to teamwork by creating a relaxed team atmosphere [154, 168] that helps to promote stability, coordination and cooperation [161], task cohesion [166], while reducing conflict, disruptive behaviour, and enhancing team performance as a result [155, 180, 213, 214]. In general, it has been found that elevated levels of trait emotional stability contribute positively to team performance [154, 168, 206, 215-217].

The Dark Side of Emotional Stability (Neuroticism)

Neuroticism is the dark side of this bright trait and it is an extremely important trait since is predicts a wide range of outcomes, such as marital failure, mortality, physical health issues, stress tolerance and cortisol reactivity, sleep disorders, immune system dysfunction, and many mental health associations.

Individuals with low emotional stability, otherwise known as neuroticism, tend to be lonely, moody, hostile, irritable, anxious, nervous, insecure, depressed, and high-strung. Neuroticism has been associated with the negative qualities in relationships [218, 219] and they tend to be affected by the moods of the people around them. Since neurotics believe themselves to be unattractive to others and are fearful of rejection, they tend to reject others before they are rejected themselves [220].

Highly neurotic individuals (i.e. those with low emotional stability) initially tend to lack status in organisations because the behaviours that typically result from this trait variant, i.e. low self-efficacy, low self-esteem, high anxiety, etc., are perceived negatively and they are associated with low performance expectations [221, 222]. However, in contrast to high extraverts who tend to lose status over time, neurotics actually gain status over time because their naturally high levels of anxiety cause them to be highly engaged in tasks and focussed on goal achievement. Equally, the threat of others perceiving them negatively causes them to put a lot of energy into preparing for and persisting with difficult tasks. This can result in neurotics exceeding the expectations of their peer group and supervisors alike [212: p.389].

It is of equal importance to note that extremely high emotional stability also presents as maladaptive personality as the lack of empathy, emotion, and conscience is associated with psychopathy.

Openness to Experience

The Bright Side of Openness

Openness is perhaps the most resilient trait within the Five Factor Model (FFM) of personality because it has traditionally struggled to be recognised. Trait openness to experience is described as intellectual curiosity, imaginativeness, and creativity [223], and is related to adaptability or flexibility, which may positively impact team performance.

Openness to experience is the extent to which an individual is: original, sensitive to aesthetics, inquisitive/curious, imaginative, broadminded, daring, tolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty, independent thinking, and willing to experiment [114, 167, 168].

Considering the endless clamour for employees to ‘think outside the box’, one might think that individuals who are inquisitive when faced with novel situations, adapt to change, and are creative problem solvers, would be amongst the highest of performers [224: p.243]. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support this view and the motivational properties of this trait are not well understood because this trait has not been widely studied [e.g. 184, 225, 226]. Unhelpfully it has been consistently reported as the weakest predictor of all of the five traits in respect of job performance [148, 153, 155, 201, 213, 227]. This has led some to argue that the trait is inconclusive and non-significant, [e.g. 225, 228] and trait openness may actually be better represented as two discrete factors [224].

Compared with the other four factors, openness may be a key influence on interpersonal and social phenomena as individuals who are curious and open-minded must have an interest in getting to know others both inside and outside of their social network [229]. Openness is suggested to be a better predictor when situations are novel or complex [224], where there is increased likelihood of task-conflict [230], where its ability to predict performance is contingent upon the outcome [231]. Openness to experience may also help to decelerate the rate at which performance declines over time [232: p.8] and it may be associated with performance to the extent that individuals high on this trait are more adaptable and responsive to the changes required to continue in a dynamic team environment, [167] and they may perform at a higher level than their less open team mates over the long term [232].

Open individuals have been found to be more satisfied with jobs in consulting, whereas closed individuals are more satisfied in manufacturing. Teams high in openness tend to develop more creative solutions to problems. But it is not just the average level of openness that matters; the variability in openness within the team also matters. That is, teams made up of individuals both high and low in openness perform better than teams made up of individuals either all high or all low in openness. Despite this, a team that is high in trait openness might experience greater conflict and low task-cohesion since the attraction of something new will divert focus from goal completion [166]. Individuals who are low in openness tend to be down-to-earth, practical, traditional, but also set in their ways [190].

Dark Personality

We all have aspects of our personality that predisposes us to behaving in ways that are difficult for others to accept, and/or corrodes trust in relationships. However, some toxic combinations of these dark traits can: compromise relationships permanently, poison and/or destroy teams, and even damage the reputation of the Corporate Brand – see the Corporate or Organisational Psychopath as an example [127, 233-235]. These traits are generally represented by the Dark Triad of personality.

What is the Dark Triad?

The Dark Triad is a phrase that isn’t commonly used in the workplace but it is an increasingly hot topic as we realise that all traits present on a continuum. The term represents three typically aberrant personality traits: Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy [236]. To put these into context and aid understanding they are outlined below.


As a concept, the trait of Narcissism was originally developed by Freud [237] and is derived from the Myth of Narcissus.

The Myth of Narcissus – A beautiful young man who, spurning the affection of various nymphs, was fated by a goddess to fall into unrequited love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to draw himself away from his own beautiful image, he died of starvation and turned into a white and purple flower (also known as the Narcissus) [238].

Therefore, a narcissist is broadly regarded as being someone who loves themselves excessively [239] and trait narcissism is most frequently measured with the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) [240].

Psychologists differentiate between people with narcissistic traits commonly present in the general population from those that have such extreme forms of the trait that they are classified as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder resulting in dysfunctional behaviours [241]. As with all traits, we all possess some level of narcissism and it colours our perceptions and determines our attitudes and behaviours [242].

High trait narcissists that don’t have the disorder (referred to as high narcs) are described as being: proud, arrogant, cocky, highly self-centred, controlling, duplicitous, and hyper sensitive to criticism; they have a high sense of entitlement, seek status and prestige, feel superior to others, and have an inflated view of themselves. They lack empathy and are exhibitionist, exploitative, and have dominant personalities [243]. Narcissists are boastful and are prone to exaggerate their achievements, they block criticism, refuse compromise, and only pursue interpersonal and romantic relationships with individuals that provide them with the admiration they crave. Consequently narcissists are prone to engaging in short term relationships (hook ups) [244] and can be promiscuous.

Since high narcs are primarily concerned with displaying and acknowledging their own talent and brilliance, they love praise and desire nothing more than to be admired and acknowledged – to the exclusion of everyone else. Self-aggrandisement is the trademark of the narcissist and they are masters of self-promotion. However, they lack critical human values, they fantasise about control, expect unlimited and unrealistic levels of success and admiration; and they crave to have their self-love confirmed and reinforced by others. Being self-serving, narcissists make decisions purely based on self-interest and not in the interests of their organisation, colleagues, or other important stakeholders with whom they have relationships [245].

High narcs are also associated with aggression and they will typically either ignore negative feedback or respond to it aggressively. However, if their egos are threatened [246], or they are publicly censured or criticised, they can be prone to uncontrollable rage as they lack impulse control [247].


Machiavellianism is the name for a ruthless and selfish approach to management originally advocated by Niccolo Machiavelli in his 16th century treatise ‘The Prince’, a handbook for those attempting to seize and retain political power [246].

Machiavelli explains that:

 even morally righteous men must make deliberate use of ruthless, amoral, and deceptive methods when dealing with unscrupulous men [246, p.558].

Trait of Machiavellianism came to the attention of management researchers when Christie and Geis [248], published a personality scale based on Machiavelli’s ideas. Of the three dark traits, Machiavellianism is the only trait that is not considered to be a clinical disorder in its extreme, high trait form – referred to as high mach. According to O’Boyle, et al [246]

the Machiavellian personality is defined by three sets of interrelated values: a self-confessed belief in the effectiveness of manipulative tactics in dealing with other people (e.g., “Never tell anyone the real reason you did something unless it is useful to do so”), a cynical view of human nature (e.g., “assume that all people have a vicious streak that will come out when given a chance”), and a moral principle whereby the ends justify the means [249], including the use of a fraudulent persona when necessary (entailing the use of apparent honesty, charm and tact to gain advantage) and it advocates the use of force if deemed necessary to achieve desired ends [250].

Machiavellians tend to endorse a negative view of others and are likely to make ethically suspect choices [251]. They consider themselves to be skilful manipulators of other people but, because their overall emotional intelligence is often not as strong as their self-image might have them believe [252], their actual skill falls short of their self-image. This is the way that the trait becomes apparent to others.

High machs are observant and are very aware of their situations and surroundings. They are cunning, calculative, intelligent and can enjoy relative success in their careers, particularly when they work in unstructured – such as highly variable/dynamic environments, or environments undergoing transformative change. However, as organisational structure increases, the personal success of high machs tends to diminish. They are not necessarily disliked by others, but neither are they exceptionally successful when politicking [253-260] (because their motives become transparent and this corrodes trust). While high machs have a propensity to cut corners, cheat, lie, and betray others if it is advantageous for them to do so, they also tend to avoid regular or extreme forms of anti-social behaviour [249] because they recognise that it is counter-productive to their interests.

Described as a strategy involving the social manipulation for personal gain [243], unlike psychopaths, high machs don’t lack conscience. However, there are broad similarities with psychopathy in that high machs primarily pursue strategies that promote self-interest and, to this end, will use deception, flattery and emotional detachment to manipulate and exploit social and interpersonal relationships to their own benefit [97].


Psychopathy is the third trait of the Dark Triad. Like narcissism, psychopathy was originally considered a clinical disorder (antisocial personality disorder), but it too has been recognised to exist on a continuum spanning the clinical and sub-clinical spectrum [261-263].

In the general population, psychopathy measures include items related to an individual’s sense of social influence (e.g., skill at using charm to avoid the ire of others), impulsive non-conformity (e.g., questioning of authority figures without good cause), immunity from stress (e.g., ability to stay calm when others cannot), callousness, emotional coldness, and lacking sentimentality (e.g., detachment and inability or unwillingness to experience infatuation with another person) [246]. Consequently, high trait psychopathy is typically manifested by a lack of empathy and concern for other people, social regulatory mechanisms and norms. Psychopaths are generally bad tempered, highly impulsive and devoid of conscience, guilt, or remorse when their behaviours are harmful/detrimental to others. Interpersonally, psychopaths are skilled impression managers who are slick, charismatic and superficially charming. Emotionally superficial, they tend to adopt parasitic lifestyles and have a propensity to break the rules, or engage in criminal behaviour to achieve their ends [264, 265]. They employ high levels of deception, manipulation and are described as being crafty and cunning. However, they also tend to have an inflated view of their ability and this creates the likelihood that their true nature will be noticed.

Corporate Psychopaths

Not all psychopaths are in prison. Some are in the boardroom. Hare [266]

Despite well-established early works by Cleckley [267-269], misinformation and confusion in the media have created a misconception of psychopathy in the general public. This is more evident still with business professionals who see little relevance of psychopathy to their daily interactions with colleagues [270].

Even so, psychologists have come to understand that some psychopaths have good impulse control, are not prone to outbursts of spontaneous violence, or criminal behaviour, and they can function successfully and live in society relatively undetected [102, 118, 126-128, 233-235, 263, 270-285]. These individuals have been called Successful Psychopaths, Corporate Psychopaths, Organizational Psychopaths, or Executive Psychopaths[127, 128, 233-235] because they can control their impulses sufficiently to maintain their social and professional standing.

High trait psychopaths in the general population have significant advantages over individuals that score lower on the psychopathic scale [279]. Corporate psychopaths are reportedly the product of modern business where the rate of change, turnover of staff, and limited selection processes ignore their negative traits and allow them to advance [102].

Despite the fact that high trait psychopathy has the potential to be the most destructive of the dark triad traits [286], the pejorative nature of this fearsome label means little is known about how many psychopaths exist in society (and therefore the workplace). Stigmatisation, discrimination and the related legal and ethical issues create difficulty in persuading organisations to participate in research of this trait [118]. Consequently, there are few research studies into high functioning psychopaths in the general populations. This limits understanding about how prevalent trait psychopathy is in the general population, and its distribution and strength [287].

Psychopaths represent about one percent of the population [279]. O’Boyle Jr, Forsyth [246] report that as many as three million employers and employees could be classified as psychopathic. Babiak and Hare [118] and Babiak, Neumann [270] each found that between 3.5% to 4% of top executives were psychopathic. Meanwhile Caponecchia, Sun [288] were surprised to find that 13.4% of respondents in their study reportedly worked with a psychopathic colleague – suggesting that corporate psychopaths lie in the range of 1% to 15% of the workforce.

However, the picture isn’t black and white. Firstly, we don’t know what the distribution is like for lower trait variances of psychopathy, secondly, while research reports that high psychs can be destructive in the workplace [233, 276, 278], they also tend to have some exceptional qualities that aren’t abundant in other personality types. This makes them essential is certain types of jobs. Consequently, there are anecdotal reports that at least one major UK bank is positively screening for psychopathy in its leadership cohort.

Considering reports of the large Ponzi schemes, embezzlement, insider trading, mortgage fraud and the rise of cyber/internet frauds, further research is crucial. Individuals learn from observing the people around them, particularly those who are influential role models [289-291]. The implications of this are that the destructive behaviours of psychopathic leaders will be amplified in the organisation as subordinates emulate their managers, learn and replicate the dysfunctional behaviours they observe, especially if they are perceived to result in success, or provide some other perceived benefit [279]. Therefore, leader’s moral development and behaviours are critical to developing an ethical corporate culture [292].

Dark Personality in the Workplace

Relationships in the workplace are generally based on reciprocity – I’ll work hard, be reliable, and support you in return for you paying me a fair salary, recognise my achievements, and supporting my advancement. This is referred to as Social Exchange. Yet, individuals scoring highly on dark triad traits are not likely to motivated by reciprocity or behave in ways that are beneficial to anyone other than themselves.

High machs, narcs, and psychopaths undermine the influence of social exchange relationships because these individuals are disagreeable, disruptive, lack emotional commitment to others, overlook their obligations and ignore the ideal of reciprocity completely [246].

Example – high machs are typically distrusting so they are unlikely to believe that any extra effort they put into their job will be rewarded [293]

Example – because narcissists believe they are superior to their colleagues, social rules pertaining to reciprocity and obligation do not apply to them [129, 294]

Example – the complete insensitivity of psychopaths means that they are unlikely to behave in ways that are pleasing to their colleagues, ease their burden or make life better [282].

Reciprocity [295-300] is a universal component of the moral code underpinning workplace behaviour [299] and possibly more broadly still. It also underpins Social Exchange Theory[300-303], which explains how human relationships form and develop as a consequence of the exchange of mutual benefits between individuals. Consequently, the relationship you have with your boss, or your company, is an important situational factor that interacts with personality traits and manifests in trait related behaviours. This psychological contact [304, 305] provides that you will be far more willing to work harder for longer, make sacrifices and go the extra mile if you believe that your boss, or your company, will recognise and reward the extra effort, and reciprocate in kind, otherwise, why bother?

Reflecting this, Social Exchange is represented in two forms: Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) [306-311] – describing the relationship between leaders and their reports, and Team-Member Exchange (TMX) [312-315] – the relationships between colleagues. This is fundamental to workplace motivation, and it provides a strong situation influencing trait related behaviours.

It is also an important psychological process in our personal lives as the perceived maintenance or loss of reciprocity is often at the core of relationships breakdowns, where one partner develops a pattern of behaviour that falls short of the expectations of reciprocity of the other.

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