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What Psychological Traits Are Found In Toxic Employees? New Research Investigates

toxic employees

Psychologists have long been interested in understanding the personality traits that promote socially unwelcome or offensive behavior and how these present in toxic employees. They use the term “dark personalities” to define the set of socially aversive traits — such as greed, narcissism, spitefulness, Schadenfreude, and psychopathy — that are found in all of us, but that some people exhibit to a worrying degree.

A new study published in the academic journal Personality and Individual Differences suggests that while dark personality traits are alive and well in work settings, certain dark traits have a more negative influence on organizational health and productivity than others. For instance, narcissistic employees may take less of a toll on an organization than employees who exhibit other dark traits such as psychopathy or Machiavellianism.

“Discussions about the presence of dark personalities in the workplace are frequent in recent scientific studies,” say the authors of the research, led by Zsolt Péter Szabó of Budapest University of Technology and Economics in Hungary. “Not surprisingly, results generally indicate positive associations between the dark traits and undesirable workplace outcomes.”

In this study, the authors were interested in assessing the degree to which dark personality traits were useful in predicting negative workplace outcomes or toxic employees above and beyond what is already known about an employee from a general personality test. Past research, for instance, has found that the personality trait of conscientiousness, or the tendency to be orderly, achievement-oriented, and self-disciplined, is the best predictor of workplace performance — and that people low in conscientious tend to present workplace challenges. The research is unclear, however, on whether dark traits make it even easier to identify a potentially toxic employee.

To answer this question, the researchers invited 350 working adults to complete a survey that measured the three facets of dark personalities: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy (defined below).

  • Narcissism refers to people who are self-obsessed and believe that they are special, gifted, and superior to others. They tend to respond affirmatively to statements such as, “People see me as a natural leader.”
  • Machiavellianism describes people who are manipulative, tricky, and ingratiating. The tend to respond affirmatively to statements like, “It is not wise to tell your secrets.”
  • Psychopathy describes people who are dangerously risk-seeking and lack empathy for others. They tend to express agreement with statements such as, “People who mess with me always regret it.”

The researchers also asked participants to fill out a general personality test and a series of questionnaires that measured workplace outcomes such as organizational citizenship behavior (e.g., “I go out of my way to help new employees”), counterproductive work behavior (e.g., “I insulted or made fun of someone at work”), turnover intention (e.g., “I think a lot about leaving the organization”), and work-related corruption intentions.

They found that employees who exhibited sub-clinical psychopathy were more likely to engage in counterproductive work behavior and work-related corruption intentions. Employees who exhibited Machiavellianism were also more likely to express work-related corruption intentions. Sub-clinical narcissism, on the other hand, was not found to influence any of the work-related outcomes.

The authors write, “The practical implication is that since those high in psychopathy are the most likely to engage in undesirable workplace behaviors, employee screening and selection processes should be primarily focused on identifying them.”

How do you screen for dark personality traits and avoid hiring toxic employees? A recent paper by a team of psychologists led by Delroy Paulhus of the University of British Columbia in Canada offers an elegant solution. They propose a 21-item questionnaire that measures the three components of dark personalities. The statements are listed below and should be answered on a 5-point, strongly disagree to strongly agree, scale.

21-item short-form dark personality trait scale

Psychopathy

  1. People often say I’m out of control.
  2. I tend to fight against authorities and their rule.
  3. I’ve been in more fights than most people of my age and gender.
  4. I tend to dive in, then ask questions later.
  5. I’ve been in trouble with the law.
  6. I sometimes get into dangerous situations.
  7. People who mess with me always regret it.

Machiavellianism

  1. It’s not wise to let people know your secrets.
  2. Whatever it takes, you must get the important people on your side.
  3. Avoid direct conflict with others because they may be useful in the future.
  4. Keep a low profile if you want to get your way.
  5. Manipulating the situation takes planning.
  6. Flattery is a good way to get people on your side.
  7. I love it when a tricky plan succeeds.

Narcissism

  1. People see me as a natural leader.
  2. I have a unique talent for persuading people.
  3. Group activities tend to be dull without me.
  4. I know that I am special because people keep telling me so.
  5. I have some exceptional qualities.
  6. I’m likely to become a future star in some area.
  7. I like to show off every now and then.

Though only 21-items, the researchers found this scale to reliably predict people’s “true” values on the three personality dimensions of interest.

In sum, this research suggests that subclinical narcissism is not as detrimental to an organization as other negative personality traits and that screening for toxic employees during the hiring selection process is one way to create and preserve a healthy work environment.

About the Author

Mark Travers, Ph.D., is an American psychologist with degrees from Cornell University and the University of Colorado Boulder. He can be reached at travers.mark@gmail.com.