Blog: Working in the era of the dark triads

Life @ Work

Working in the era of the dark triads

What to do when your boss is a star performer and a tyrant?
Working in the era of the dark triads

Everyone loves to work for a good boss – someone who understands you, challenges you, guides you, supports you. I know you’re rolling your eyes, you’ve never had one like that, ok one, 7 years ago and all you can do is wonder why others can’t be like him/her.

I don’t know if it would have been easier if the boss wasn’t smart, sharp and hardworking, but more often than not these are the toughest ones to work with. They’re delivering results, the world is going gaga over them, and no is looking at their methods. Mostly their bosses or peers don’t know and even if they do, they willfully turn a blind eye, after all results are king.

It's time to be honest with ourselves, what have we been guilty of? While we can't work on others, we definitely can be masters of our own selves.

I didn’t have a name for this till last year, that’s what happens when your reading habit tapers. But this article in HBR last year, “Why do Toxic People Get Promoted” introduced me to the concept of “Dark Triads”. The trio of 3.

Narcissism: characterized by excessive vanity, feelings of superiority and arrogance, as well as a strong need for admiration and entitlement. Think about the type of person who loves to be recognized for achievement even if they didn’t contribute to making it happen. 

Machiavellianism using manipulative strategies to achieve their goals without considering morality. Often described as immoral, cynical, and highly calculative; the type of person who thinks that the ends justify the means. 

Psychopathy primarily characterized by high impulsivity, low empathy or interpersonal coldness, as well as by exploitative and antisocial behavior. 

An impressive 15-year longitudinal study found that individuals with psychopathic and narcissistic characteristics gravitated towards the top of the organizational hierarchy and had higher levels of financial attainment. In line with those findings, according to some estimates, the base rate for clinical levels of psychopathy is three times higher among corporate boards than in the overall population. This is also consistent with earlier conceptualizations of psychopathy among businessmen.

Now that we have a name to our problem, the question still remains…how do we work with such a boss, someone who is a star performer but also essentially a tyrant! In all such scenarios, there’s no cookie cutter solution, but there are a few things we could try:

  • Pet peeves: A boss of mine was a real stickler for time, nothing irked him more than someone being 1 min late. Try and identify those things that your boss really doesn’t like, then don’t do them (lessons hard learned)
  • Listen: Your boss is all the time giving you inputs, even when they aren’t speaking or speaking to you. Each has their own particular style of working, some like synopsis, others like details, some like numbers and tables and others like graphs. Some like their team to be independent, others want to be checked with for every decision. What are the things they talk about when they are not talking about work? In an ideal scenario, both you and your boss would work towards adapting to each other’s styles but with a boss with dark triad traits, more often than not you’ll be the one needing to do the adapting. A good way to do this is to observe those who are favorites of your boss. Identify the common aspects and find ones you can work with.
  • Learn the art of political maneuvering: If you thought that those dark triads were all dark, well you’re right but wrong. The dark triads do help people especially leaders to deliver results. Some of those facets that help them succeed are worth learning. One such facet is Political skill, which is defined as a positive social competence that helps people network, influence others, demonstrate social astuteness, and appear sincere in their dealings with others. 
  • Deliver results: A key weapon in your arsenal will always be delivering on work, preferably more than what is stated or expected.  It will help build your credibility in the system and work against implicit or explicitly created false impressions.
  • Build allies: It’s always good to have more friends, guides, mentors in the system who will vouch for you, and possibly even stand by you so that the only voice being heard about you is not from your boss. 

There’s one additional thing that all of us need to do:

Introspect: If most successful people show signs of these dark triads, then there’s a reasonable possibility we also have these traits in varying degrees. It’s time to be honest with ourselves, what have we been guilty of? While we can’t work on others, we definitely can be masters of our own selves. 

Seek feedback (best way of that, is whenever someone gives you some, even if you disagree with it, don’t justify, thank them and try and see if that feedback is corroborated by others)

Act on one aspect: Behavioral changes aren’t easy, they are heavily ingrained in us. If you’ve been able to identify one aspect, give it due focus and time.

Seek feedback again: The truth about us, is only known to the people who have to tolerate us, hence if you feel you’ve changed, let others tell you that, before you believe it for yourself.

As one very senior person, I met sometime back said, “Why are you so worried about who your boss is. Most often than not life will not give you the opportunity to decide that. If you’re smart and hardworking, you’ll figure out how to get along with any boss.”

Golden words, I agree! Sometimes though despite all your best efforts the situation may become unmanageable and since we spend a lot of daily time on work both in and outside office it can start affecting your mental health and peace of mind. In such cases it might be worthwhile to try and seek newer shores in the hope that they may turn out to be at least slightly better than current. These could possibly be within the organization or even outside.

An impressive 15-year longitudinal study found that individuals with psychopathic and narcissistic characteristics gravitated towards the top of the organizational hierarchy and had higher levels of financial attainment

Other References: 

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