Has your empathy and compassion ever led to anxiety about what others think of you? Has your competitive nature ever made enemies? Has your persuasiveness ever led to manipulation? We all possess dark side traits which may have helped us achieve success in the past but if we don’t keep these traits in check, they’ll eventually catch up and may well lead to detrimental outcomes. Given the topical nature of toxic leadership and scandalous behaviour, we found ‘The Dark Side’ to be a fitting theme for the Association for Business Psychology (ABP) conference this year in October.
As an ABP Committee member, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of interviewing the one and only Dr. Robert Hogan, who started Hogan Assessments with his wife Joyce in1987 and put dark side traits on the map. We discussed the dark side of personality, what it is and why it’s crucial for organisations to pay attention to.
Personality has a very real impact on organisational outcomes—bad managers lead to toxic environments that kill engagement and negatively impact productivity. Managerial failure is easy to identify, but the ‘why’ is much more difficult to uncover. Thanks to organisational research from psychologists, we can identify these traits very early on and either develop leaders to manage their dark side, or simply find another place for them (i.e outside of the organisation).
Dark side traits are those which exhibit when a strength is overused (e.g persuasiveness becomes manipulation), or when stress, boredom or fatigue leads to certain—sometimes extreme—behaviours that can derail a career. Popular discourse and plenty of past research has largely focused on ‘bright side’ traits like engagement and motivation but it’s important to recognise the other end of the spectrum.
In this brief exchange, I ask Dr. Hogan all about the dark side of personality. Fun fact: it was Dr. Hogan who coined the term ‘dark side’ after reading an article about psychological phenomena that seemed as “bizarre as the dark side of the moon”. This article inspired him to reference our extreme personality traits as the “dark side of personality”.
Skye Trubov: What is the dark side all about?
Dr. Hogan: The dark side is all about failed managers: why they fail, how they create alienation and destroy engagement and productivity of companies. There are significant consequences associated with the dark side. We break it down into three main factors, the first is intimidation and bullying, the second has to do with charm and seduction, the third [category] is something like false compliance and antisocial behaviour.
ST: Why is it important?
Dr. H: There are real financial consequences that show the impact of bad leadership. Academic research has focused mostly on good qualities of leadership by examining the qualities that make a strong leader, so [I said] we know about the good ones, what about the bad ones? How many bad ones are out there? Turns out there’s a whole lot more out there than anyone would have imagined. When I started looking into this concept 20 years ago, I did a bit of research to conclude that the incompetency of management in the corporate world is 60-70%, which both aligns with average rate of disengagement, which is about 75% based on surveys, and also greatly contradicts the professional estimates of 3% to 5% – so what we need to focus on is A) what is the base rate in organisations, and B) what causes that? ST: Do you see an industry or a business unit with managers that demonstrates these dark traits more than others?
Dr. H: The answer is sort of. You cannot have a military career without something called dutiful and diligent [which are two out of the eleven subscales measured in the Hogan Development Survey (HDS) used to determine dark side traits]. You can’t have a career in sales without high scores on colourful and mischievous and you can’t have a career in banking without high scores on the sceptical, cautious and reserved scales. So, different roles might draw people who specialise in different areas of the dark side.
ST: It’s not too difficult to spot dark side traits in managers… Do you think some people are just jerks or can we boil it down to personality? How much can we attribute circumstance and environment to one’s behaviour?
Dr. H: I’m an old-school Freudian and I think early on experience really matters and all these dark side characteristics had a path at some point. They’re patterns of behaviours that are learned. These features can provide positive feedback and therefore reinforce these behaviours. Even into adulthood. I call these short-term wins and long-term losses. In any single interaction or meeting, these dark side traits will give you a reaction but this accumulates over time, like radiation. [does this last sentence add much?]
ST: How do you see assessment changing in the next 5 years?
Dr. H: I think delivery vehicles will change but there are two real issues: change v. improvement. I think improvements will come as a result of regular progressive advancements but change will come in the form of delivering an assessment on a [mobile] phone or doing personality assessment by reading facebook etc. so two issues: how will it change and how will it improve? It will change in superficial and glittery ways and it will improve systematically and incrementally, one item at a time.
ST: How do you see all of this influencing HR? What’s their responsibility?
An essential point for understanding leadership [is] to manage the talent in a way that’s leading to organisational productivity. The data show clearly that every financial outcome of an organisation can be tied back to engagement, and bad leadership destroys engagement and flexibility. If I were in HR, that would be my sole focus. At an innate level, I would implore HR people to pay attention to data as opposed to tracking fads. [The industry is] unbelievably ridden with fads.
ST: Where do you see the ABP offering value to organisations?
I see the ABP offering value as a clearing house of organisational trends and clearing out the crap of fads claiming to be psychology.
ST: Finally, what are your dark side traits?
MINE?! Oh jeez. Let’s just say that I really struggled writing the bold or narcissism items. The sceptical and paranoid items I wrote in one setting and didn’t have to revise a single item.
Dr. Hogan is speaking as a keynote at the Association for Business Psychology Conference on 12-13 October in London. Visit the ABP website for more details on tickets and award/speaker slot submissions (deadline 12 June) – submissions are free and open to anyone.