How leaders can make their dark side brighter

Dark side of leadership
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There can’t be many of us who haven’t at some point in our working lives come across leaders who have a ‘dark’ side.

Maybe you work for a manager who’s a bit of a narcissist – someone who truly believes they are head and shoulders above everyone else, is arrogant in the extreme and only happy when they are basking in the glow of admiration from others.

Or perhaps you’ve been unfortunate enough to work for someone with Machiavellian tendencies. A calculating, master manipulator, who has no morals and will do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. 

You might even have come across a psychopath in the workplace – a cold, unstable and aggressive leader who appears to be completely lacking in empathy and behaves in unpredictable ways.

Of course you may also be aware that to a greater or lesser degree, you have some of these ‘dark’ traits yourself – and that your behaviour can sometimes have a negative impact on your team.

'Dark' traits and performance

Unsurprisingly, previous research has shown that leaders who display these personality traits (known as the dark triad) don’t score highly when it comes to leadership performance.

Their challenging and destructive behaviour makes it difficult for them to get the best out of their teams, which ultimately affects their ability to achieve their goals.

The people who work for them feel unsupported, have lower job satisfaction, lower psychological wellbeing and are more likely to leave. 

Until now, however, there has been little research on the dynamics underlying the negative relationship ‘dark’ leaders have with their teams – and on whether it is possible for these leaders to improve their performance by takings steps to make their dark side brighter.

At Hult International Business School, we set out to explore the quality of the relationship between leaders and followers and in particular to look at what impact similarity or difference in their personalities might have.

The study included 349 participants who were both leaders and followers, in that they held middle management positions but also reported to leaders from higher level management.

Just over half the sample were female. Using an on-line psychometrically-validated questionnaire, participants rated their own dark traits and the quality of their relationship with their manager, as well as rating their leader’s dark traits and leadership performance.

What did we find?

Overall, we found that the stronger a leader’s dark traits were, the poorer their relationship with their followers was likely to be.

This was particularly true for narcissism and Machiavellianism.

But if leaders took positive action to improve their relationships with their followers, it helped to ‘buffer’ or mitigate the negative effect of their dark side. 

The research also showed that similarity, rather than difference, in leader-follower personality traits results in better working relationships.

This is partly because subordinates with similar quality traits can better understand and emphasise with their leader’s behaviour.

If a leader and a follower both have Machiavellian tendencies, for example, they might happily join forces and come up with a clever but manipulative plan which helps them achieve their joint goals, even if it has negative consequences for the wider organisation.

Equally, the negative outcomes of narcissistic behaviour often only emerge over time and in the early days, before the true extent of damaging behaviour becomes apparent, followers with narcissistic tendencies themselves may perceive their leaders as charismatic, visionary and inspirational.

The research findings emphasise the need for leaders to examine the ‘dark’ side of their personality and to think about the impact this may be having on their leadership performance.

So what practical steps can people take to make their dark side a little brighter?:

1. Acknowledge and accept you have a dark side

Every leader has a degree of darkness in their personality – this is perfectly natural – but to ensure it does not impact substantially on leadership performance, it is important to accept it is there and be aware of when it is most likely to emerge.

We may not like admitting that our behaviour is sometimes less than perfect – but if you don’t acknowledge it, nothing will change.

By accepting that your personality is defined by dark traits, you will be better able to monitor how these influence your behaviour and impact your leadership capabilities.

2. Get to know your dark side

  • What does your dark side look like and when is it more likely to emerge?
  • Is your dark side more prevalent, for example, during times of stress?
  • Do you know that you are sometimes tempted to take credit for other’s work to make yourself look good? 
  • Are you aware that you have a tendency to manipulate situations to get what you personally want, even if it’s not the right thing to do?

Self-awareness is an important first step to making your dark side brighter. Ask for feedback or consider taking a psychometric test to help you develop a deeper insight into your personality and how you operate.

3. Understand how others view you

Learning about your dark side from other people’s perspective will help you to better manage it in the future.

Ask for feedback or get your team to complete a 360 psychometric test.

As our research shows, the impact of the dark side of leadership performance differs according to other people’s personality characteristics.

Some people in your team might be more sensitive to the impact of your dark side than others.

Knowing which characteristics you display and how they are received by others is one step further towards managing impact.

4. Manage your dark side

Once you have identified your dark side, you will be better able to manage its impact on your leadership performance.

Keeping yourself physically and mentally healthy is one way of keeping your dark side in check, as it is more likely to emerge when resources are depleted.

It is also useful to identify what triggers activate your dark side so that you can avoid these or at least be prepared to deal with the consequences.

Taking part in executive education that involves stress-inducing experiential learning is one way you can learn, in a safe environment, about how your dark side emerges during times of strain.

5. Mitigate the impact

When your dark side emerges – as it inevitably will at some point in your career – think about how you can reduce its impact on your leadership ability and the people you are leading.

One way of doing this is to develop coping mechanisms that can be applied during times of strain. 

Scenario planning, for example, or set behavioural routines might be useful ways to help manage yourself and reduce the impact of your behaviour on others.

6. Practice to fine-tune your personality

Of course there is no such thing as the perfect personality, but it is possible to manage your behavioural preferences so that you can become a more effective leader. 

This does take effort and requires you to make a commitment to stay focused.

Maintaining change over time is difficult.  We all have a tendency to go back to our default mode – our personalities – especially when we are tried, stressed or get too familiar with our surroundings. 

To stay on track, it might be helpful to find a leadership coach who can work with you to help you manage your dark side, so that your leadership style remains effective over time and at all times.

About Nadine Page

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