Can your undercover dark side derail your career?

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, October 2, 2017

We all have private dark closets that hide parts of our personality — parts that we are not particularly pleased with. Psychiatrists call these “the dark triad” — narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.

Narcissism is characterized by grandiosity, pride and lack of empathy. Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulation and exploitation, a focus solely on self-interest and deception. And psychopathy is characterized by anti-social behavior, impulsivity and callousness.

What has prompted me to wander down this road is an article in the Harvard Business Review, “Could your personality derail your career?” This hits close to yours truly, since when I was younger, I was not nearly as “charming” as I am today — and that gives you a very clear baseline reference to my youth. My private suspicion is that I could have been more successful earlier if I had been aware of these issues and had learned how to manage them.

Two decades ago, the psychologists Robert and Joyce Hogan created an inventory of dark-side traits that could be dangerous to your future career trajectory. The Hogans identified three distinct clusters, first “distancing traits” such as excitable, skeptical and passive aggressive. In contrast, the second cluster is “seductive qualities,” such as bold, mischievous, colorful and imaginative. You might find these in the charismatic leader. However, these exact qualities also may lead to overestimating your own worth and tending toward arrogance, or what is known as the look in the mirror and fall in love syndrome.

The third cluster is “ingratiating traits,” such as diligent and dutiful. These are highly prized in the worker-bee slot, but not so great in the CEO slot, where this cluster can lead to a tendency to be submissive or acquiescent. Remember the key to all these clusters is not how you view them; it is specifically how the external world views them. It is the perception of others that can most impact your career success.

To understand and manage all of these potential career derailers is beyond the scope of this column. I have been at it for almost 35 years in my own therapy, and I am not done yet. Behavioral change is hard.

Here is a story. A friend of mine applies to a senior role at a venture-backed startup. They have money and customers, the CEO is growing the company quickly, and it is clear that they need another senior executive. My friend is offered the job and is about to accept. He has a call with the CEO, and the interaction calls into question his empathy gene. He appears to be uncaring to a particular personal issue. This gives my friend pause. But the counter-weight is the thought that this company could get sold for a big number, so if he joins he may get a big payday.

On the final call before accepting the offer, again the CEO is insensitive. There is a funeral in my friend’s family and he needs to delay acceptance of the offer, but the CEO seems dismissive and annoyed. The friend calls me and asks what to do.

The nuance in all of these traits is that a certain amount of each of them is valuable, while excessive amounts of any one can be deadly to your career. Finding the balance — well, that is the trick.

I have a client who is a certified rock star in his field. His one dark trait is a hot temper. Our sessions often have me wrapping him in an ice blanket and the ongoing rule is no angry email goes out that I don’t see first (and then edit).

In all of these traits, men tend to score higher than women across the board. But not so fast, “findings indicate that while there has been a general increase in levels of narcissism among all college students, the average level in college women has increased more so than in men.”

You can imagine the conflicts for women as they acquire leadership positions. They have to both “lean in” and also exhibit mischievous, bold and colorful traits that can be viewed as both “seductive” and threatening.

As I work with young entrepreneurs, I have discovered a fourth dark triad (I know, but work with me) and that is greed. More on that in another column.

By the way, the friend turned down the job.

Rule No. 531:  The work place is a puzzle indeed.


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