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Why Do Machiavellian and Narcissistic Individuals Have More Career Success?

There’s all sorts of ways to get ahead in your career. For example, research shows that nearly three in four adults (74%) feel that an unattractive smile can be detrimental to a person’s career success.

And as the Harvard Business Review recently reported, so can being one of the good guys.

In psychology, there are three “dark triad” traits: psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Scoring high on psychopathy means an individual is more egocentric, reckless, dishonest, and cruel than the general population. Those who get high scores for Machiavellianism are morally feeble, and likely feels that “the end justifies the means.” Someone who scores high on narcissism has a more selfish sense of entitlement on top of a disregard for others.

What’s interesting is that individuals can possess these traits, and unlike clinical personality traits, have totally normal functioning. They may not cause any problems at school or work. In fact, a recent study found that narcissism and Machiavellianism could actually help a person. Researchers found that narcissism was significantly linked to a higher salary, and that Machiavellianism was positively linked career satisfaction and leadership level. Even after accounting for demographics, tenure, organization size, and hours worked, these associations were still significant.

Another study examined the overlap of positive and negative personality traits, and found that those who have a dark triad personality were more likely to be extroverted, open to new experiences, curious, and self-confident. Plus, dark triad personalities are more competitive, albeit because they’re less likely to behave altruistically and cooperatively.

While possessing one of these dark triad personality traits might help an individual get ahead, especially in a cutthroat industry, they are detrimental for a group or organization. In evolutionary terms, a dark triad personality is essentially parasitic. Studies have shown that the dark triad are linked to higher incidents of bullying, and have significant associations with counterproductive work behaviors, like theft, absenteeism, turnover, and more.

How, then, do the “bad guys” win?

Because individuals with intermediate levels of the dark triad seem to have the traits’ advantages with few of its disadvantages. For example, intermediate levels of Machiavellianism predict the highest level of organizational citizenship, likely because those individuals are great at networking. Another study found that the best military leaders were high in egotism and self-esteem, but low in manipulativeness and impression management. In other words, they had all the benefits of narcissism without its detriments.

What this all essentially means is that individuals with dark triad traits are more likely to get ahead in their careers, but likely at the cost of the organization.

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