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Dark personalities – how to handle an arsehole at work

Illustration: Catrin Jakobsson

Narcissism, psychopathy and machiavellianism are personality traits that often lead to major social problems in the workplace. Magnus Lindén has researched “the dark triad” – dark personality traits that can nevertheless lead to success and management positions.

“People with dark traits often cause major relationship problems in the workplace. It’s arsehole-like behaviour that usually involves telling off and embarrassing coworkers who are further down in the power hierarchy, making them feel humiliated and diminished.”

The fact that arseholes – which is actually the term used in popular science – are responsible for major work-related costs is a relatively well-researched phenomenon, but there are no studies showing how closely arsehole behaviour is linked to the dark triad. The dark triad is a relatively new concept and Magnus Lindén has conducted research to determine the evil core of these three different personality traits which somewhat overlap. The narcissist has a grandiose self-image, exaggerating their own importance and ability at the expense of others. The machiavellian personality manipulates others, has no empathy and does not care about ethics. The psychopaths are characterised by selfishness and callousness, impulsive sensation-seeking and an inability to feel regret. Magnus Lindén argues that this could be a major issue at workplaces.

“But it’s important not to demonise people; these personality traits may be more or less dominant depending on the context”, says Magnus Lindén, associate professor of psychology.

Magnus Lindén. Photo:Jenny Loftrup

The three personality traits serve as a basis for behaving like an arsehole.

“People with dark traits are attracted to power and like to stay close to their manager and affirm them. With the dark traits come dishonesty, manipulation and aggression. These people are also often verbal and good at turning on a superficial charm.”

Therefore, in the case of employment interviews, it is difficult to expose people with dark traits. Psychopaths are excellent at making a good first impression; narcissists are good at selling themselves; and machiavellians have no problem with lying on their CVs.... One way of exposing them, however, is by speaking with several of their references. If you only call one reference at the applicant’s current place of work, there is always the risk that they will provide good references – to get rid of the person.

Apart from the fact that people with psychopathic traits have the gift of speech, they often have qualities that are sought by major workplaces when looking for managers. They are performance-driven and prefer a climate characterised by competition, where they are prepared to step on people to climb upwards.

“They are fearless, visionary, charismatic and dare to make risky decisions – qualities that are seen as positive. But they are motivated by increasing their own power and don’t have the best interests of the company at heart, which usually has negative consequences.”

Those who are subject to this “arsehole behaviour” end up further down the power hierarchy or are seen as rivals.

“People who are exposed to this type of behaviour are typically drained of energy and are made to feel diminished and humiliated.”

To the manager of the arsehole, the behaviour is often difficult to relate to. It is built up over time and everything takes place in a moral grey zone; the behaviour is not a violation of the law but it is a moral transgression. Managers often let it go too far before they decide to intervene.

“Often, it’s not until finance officers warn that things are getting expensive that something happens. For instance, when consultants are called in to solve problems or when staff are put on sick leave.”

The pattern is that there is a conflict that leads to nasty outbursts against a coworker. Then it’s quiet for a while and then the “arsehole behaviour” returns against a new co-worker and so on…. Research shows that people who are subjected to injustices do not forget over time.

“Anyone can blow their top at some point, you apologise and move on. But an arsehole continues with the behaviour. Coworkers often no longer wish to cooperate with the person and the situation becomes untenable.”

If you are subjected to an arsehole at work, it is a good idea to document what is happening, seek support from colleagues and avoid the person as much as possible.

“It’s about creating ‘safe pockets’ at work, making sure you spend as little time as possible in the same room by simply switching offices. Maybe you can avoid meetings by emailing instead.”

Magnus Lindén also adds that as an employee it is about trying to maintain an emotional distance and lowering your expectations – things won’t be better at the next meeting.

What a manager can do to create an environment that does not promote arseholes is to de-emphasise the power structure as much as possible.

“This is done by listening to all employees equally, regardless of their position. It’s also important not to let certain people get away with things, as it undermines the trust of the group.”

At LU, Magnus Lindén thinks one way would be to discuss a code of conduct to be signed by all new employees.

“Google, for example, has its ‘Don’t be evil’ policy to be followed by its employees. And we know that it’s harder for people to break an agreement they’ve signed.”

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