How Leaders Can Make Their Dark Side Brighter
By Erika Lucas for Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School.
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 in the past, you’ve worked 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 encounter 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 – 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 behavior can sometimes have a negative impact on your team.
Unsurprisingly, 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 behavior 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 well-being 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.
Our recent research 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.
Overall, we found that the stronger a leader’s dark traits were, the poorer their relationship with their followers was likely to be. 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 emphasize with their leader’s behavior.
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 organization.
Equally, the negative outcomes of narcissistic behavior often only emerge over time and in the early days, before the true extent of damaging behavior becomes apparent, followers with narcissistic tendencies themselves may perceive their leaders as charismatic, visionary and inspirational.
The research findings emphasize 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 behavior is sometimes less than perfect – but if you don’t acknowledge it, nothing will change.
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 the 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 behavioral routines might be useful ways to help manage yourself and reduce the impact of your behavior on others.