Handling staff with dark traits

You can hardly listen to the news or scroll through social media lately without hearing about how some wealthy and powerful leader is terrorising their staff. Dr Holly Andrews looks at workplace bullies’ dark triad of characteristics, how they find success and how society lets them.

Deputy prime minister Dominic Raab recently hit the headlines as ex-colleagues tell of his alleged cold anger, use of a raised voice, cutting people short and treating his private office with contempt. Last year, it was Elon Musk when he axed half of Twitter’s employees and told those remaining that they need to be “hardcore”.

We often tell our children that bullies are sad themselves, that they won’t win in the end, that they are actually weak and that we should ignore them or even try to help them, but is this really true? I can’t comment on Raab’s happiness, but he holds one of the highest positions in government, so I would struggle to say that he isn’t successful professionally. Musk is one of the richest people in the world, indicating a successful career by anyone’s standards.

So, what is it about our society and the way these so-called bullies operate that enables them to be successful, or at least rise to the top, even if they can’t sustain it?

Organisational psychopaths

My own research into organisational psychopaths sheds some interesting light on this question. While not all bullies possess dark traits, the “dark triad” of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism is associated with increased incidence of bullying in organisations and may explain some workplace bullying.

Many traits associated with the dark triad are more extreme versions of traits that capitalistic societies value in leaders. For example, we want our leaders to be able to make tough decisions when needed; a lack of empathy for others will enable you to do this easily.

We want leaders who are able to inspire and influence others; possessing a veneer of charm and being a skilled manipulator fits the bill. We celebrate those who have the courage to take big risks; a lack of anticipatory anxiety and irresponsibility facilitate such risk-taking.

We actively seek out these traits when we are looking to recruit a leader. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to identify when you have too much of a good thing.

Furthermore, what is “good” initially can tip into toxicity over time. Research shows that in leaderless group activities, those with darker traits are more likely to emerge as leaders.

This is endorsed by the group initially but, over time, these leaders come to be rejected by their group as they are unable to cooperate. We often admire these traits when we initially come into contact with them, but we expect them to be used in a way that supports the company or the team we are working with.

The problem is you cannot harness and direct traits like this. Someone who is lacking in empathy is just as likely to treat a colleague callously as a competitor. As a result, there can be some incredible highs and some very significant lows when you have a leader with ‘dark’ traits, including a culture of bullying.

How to handle workplace bullies

So, what can be done about workplace bullies who have dark traits? There are several pieces of the puzzle that can help, but none that can completely ‘fix’ this issue.


The first piece is about education. Leaders and decision-makers, such as HR, need to be aware of darker traits and the impact they can have, so they can be alert for any warning signs. Extremely divergent views of an individual, high levels of turnover and high sickness absence in a team can all be signs that there is a ‘dark side’ employee present.


Rethinking what is valued in the organisation may also be required. The need to demonstrate results may need to be balanced with demonstrating that the results were generated in a way that is sustainable for employees, facilitates their growth and supports their wellbeing. The dark triad tends to thrive when there is an ‘ends justify the means’ culture, where performance is all that matters.


Finally, building a culture of openness means that workplace bullying isn’t hidden in the shadows. The dark triad is adept at manipulating people one-on-one and can continue this for much longer if people don’t share their experiences. There are wider benefits to this kind of culture too. We know from research, such as Google’s Aristotle project, that psychological safety, feeling safe to speak up in your team, is associated with high-performing teams, creativity and innovation.

But what happens if dark characteristics go right to the top of the hierarchy? Organisational culture is significantly impacted by the tone set at the top. If Rishi Sunak supports Raab, where do civil servants who experience bullying go? We have seen Musk openly set out a culture at Twitter where people are expected to sacrifice their family life and possibly their mental and physical health to work around the clock or else face losing their job. In this case, there is very little scope for the culture to be challenged and changed.

It is no surprise that many people took voluntary redundancy from Twitter once Musk took over. In the short term, if a culture of workplace bullying is endorsed by those at the top, then the only option employees really have is to get in line or leave the organisation. Civil servants may vote with their feet and leave the profession if they feel that the prime minister endorses the tactics that Raab is alleged to have used to drive performance.

Longer-term, pressure may be applied by wider society. If everyone who disagreed with how Raab and Musk treat employees changed their choice at the ballot box or stopped using Twitter, then there would be a reason for our so-called workplace bullies to change tack. Until that point, they have found success with this approach, so why would they stop now?

source: https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/workplace-bullying-dark-traits/

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