The Drive of the Devious: Why Evil People Get Promoted

Heather Harper

Written by Heather Harper

Apr 2, 2018  - Last updated: Jul 3, 2018

Much of personality at work focuses on the positive aspect to personality; the ‘bright side’ of an employee, the side that involves extraverts, conscientiousness and agreeable individuals. However, personality at work also has a very dark side; a side of deception, deceitfulness and dishonesty. As Robert Hare once said, “Not all psychopaths are in prison – some are in the boardroom”.

The Dark Triad, which has been referred to as ‘James Bond Psychology’, is a personality cluster defining functional, but ‘undesirable’ personality traits – namely Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy.

The typical psychopath is characterised by antisocial behaviour, impulsivity and selfishness. A narcissist is characterised by grandiosity, pride and egotism. Finally, Machiavellianism is characterised by manipulation, exploitation and deception.


Sounds pretty undesirable, right? …. Wrong. In the same way that historical leaders such as Hitler and Napoleon rose to power, modern day business leaders are doing the same by using their Dark Triad traits to their advantage to create outragiously successful careers.

A recent study found that ‘bright side’ personalities, such as those outlined in the Big-5, have an overlap to the Dark Triad traits. Specifically, extraversion and openness to experience were found to have the highest overlap.

Similarly, a study, that lasted 15-years, found that individuals with Dark Triad personality traits still express many desirable personality characteristics, such as: leadership, charm and good communication skills. This research also concluded that over the 15 years, narcissistic and psychopathic personalities tended to move to the top of the organisational hierarchy more than other personality types.

Maccoby wrote in his article ‘Narcissistic Leaders: The incredible Pros, the inevitable cons’ that narcissists are the “innovators - driven in business to gain power and glory”. Explaining that narcissists excel because they are driven towards success.

A study also found that narcissism, when used positively, was linked to higher leadership success levels – more so than any other personality characteristic. So, displaying narcissistic tendencies isn't as bad as it seems.

Research has also shown that narcissistic tendencies increase as salary increases. The same research also showed that Machiavellianism is linked to leadership and career satisfaction, and that psychopaths, although often successful, don’t make good leaders or necessarily have higher salaries.

King crown

Why do Dark Personalities succeed?

Research has suggested that Narcissist perform better in interviews, most likely due to their exceptional confidence, their persuasiveness and their ability to sell themselves in a positive light. This, of course, means that they are often extremely hireable, which is undoubtably the first step to making it to the top.

Although narcissists typically lack empathy, they tend to seek social contact from others in order to gain admiration and attention, often making them popular and therefore desirable leaders.

Narcissists also typically engage in self-enhancing behaviours; helping them to become popular at work and to develop their career successfully. For these reasons, narcissist tend to pursue careers that feed their social, power and attention seeking demands; often meaning they’re found at the top of the business hierarchy.

It has been shown that people who display Machiavellianism have an inability to connect with others emotionally, and because of this they tend to treat others as objects. This disregard for others and inability to form relationships with others allows these individuals to push themselves to the top without a worry about how their actions affect other employees. Although, it has been shown that intermediate levels, opposed to high levels, of Machiavellianism in leaders and employees actually tend to have higher levels of organisational citizenship behaviour

Similar to narcissist, employees with Machiavellianism also often strive to be at the top of the hierarchy in business because they have a desire for status and recognition. This means they are often drawn to positions of power and control – leading them to roles such as CEO’s or directors of businesses.

It is  believed that approximately one out of every 100 adult males and one in every 200 adult females are psychopaths; but in the world of business, an Australian [study],( has found that 1 in 5 CEOs are psychopaths.

Psychopaths tend to become successful at the top of businesses because they are charming and enticing on first impression. They are drawn to powerful people and powerful positions, they like to take risks and are therefore drawn to be at the top.

Psychopaths are gifted at finding insecurities and weaknesses in colleagues, making them excellent at manipulating people to reach the top; but also, potentially causing them to lose their jobs. Functional magnetic resonance imaging has shown that psychopaths do not feel emotions, such as empathy, as strongly as a ‘normal’ person does - explaining why psychopaths at work act in mean, manipulative and explosive ways; its so that they can feel some sort of emotional response.

However, psychopaths have shown to often be the least successful individuals that display Dark Triad trait; this is because although all Dark Triad traits show some level of disagreeableness with others in the workplace, psychopaths can be disagreeable in aggressive and destructive mannerisms, most likely leading to career failure. Milder psychopaths tend to be more successful than extreme psychopaths because their antisocial behaviour is often perceived as a strength, for instance, they are seen to provide constructive criticism, opposed to manipulating employees insecurities.

Overall, these dark and ‘undesirable’ personalities succeed in the workplace because of their ability to put their own interest first and their confidence and ability to pursue and work towards their goals, regardless of others.

Smoking bill

But does this all come at a cost?

Although these Dark Triad traits have been shown to cause successful careers for individual people; it can come at a cost for the others around them.

The dark triad linked to higher incidents of bullying and unmoral behaviour, such as dishonesty and fraud, which has been estimated to cost the public sector £20.6 billion a year in the UK alone. These dark individuals can end up costing organisations money,  and affecting their employees well-being.

The explosive and destructive behaviours that psychopaths display in order to feel emotions, can also cause the employees around them to feel abused and intimidated, creating an unpleasant work environment.

Dark triad personalities may be crucial and beneficial to all high-flying and successful business – if they are noticed early on so that they can be moderated, controlled and used to the businesses advantage.

If you want to find out more about how you can assess your personality, or your employees personality, read this article.

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Heather Harper

About the author

Heather Harper is a psychology student from the University of Lincoln. She currently works as an intern for WorkStyle and is studying a Masters in Occupational Psychology at the University of Manchester.