Summary

15 Signs You Work with a Narcissist, Machiavellian, or Psychopath

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Ever get the feeling that certain coworkers are only looking out for themselves, not the company or their colleagues?

If so, you might be working with a narcissist, Machiavellian, or psychopath—or with someone who behaves in ways that define those personality disorders, according to an Academy of Management Perspectives article, “Shady Strategic Behavior: Recognizing Strategic Behavior of Dark Triad Followers.”

“Their interests aren’t organizational interests. Their interests are for themselves,” said Birgit Schyns of Neoma Business School. Schyns coauthored the article with Barbara Wisse of the University of Groningen and Durham University Business School, and Stacey Sanders of the University of Groningen.

All three types—collectively called Dark Triad personalities—may be “guided by the wrong values, lack a moral compass and compassion for others, and use their position as follower to pursue their own goals,” the authors wrote:

  • Narcissists have a strong sense of entitlement and a constant need for attention and admiration. They are arrogant and consider themselves to be superior to others.

  • Machiavellians are sly, deceptive, distrusting, and manipulative. They are characterized by cynical and misanthropic beliefs, callousness, a striving for … money, power, and status, and the use of cunning influence tactics. In contrast to narcissists, Machiavellians do not necessarily have to be the center of attention and are satisfied with the role of puppeteer, unobtrusively pulling the strings.

  • Psychopaths “are unlikely to consider the needs and wishes of others and are unafraid of crossing moral boundaries. … By creating chaos in the organization, as well as in coworkers’ personal lives, they can pursue personal agendas without detection. They do not only enjoy hurting people, they strategically use humiliation and bullying to direct other people’s attention away from their hidden selfish activities. … psychopaths are often viewed as the most malevolent ones of the Dark Triad.”

Many researchers have studied these behaviors among organizational leaders, but Schyns, Wisse, and Sanders focused on followers. These behaviors among followers, the authors wrote, can hurt organizations in several ways.

“Some Dark Triad followers might be keenly interested in being promoted to leader positions. Given that those in leadership positions usually have greater power, the position also offers the opportunity to cause greater damage. This makes the detection of problematic behavior prior to a possible promotion important,” they wrote.

“Narcissists want to become leaders because they feel entitled to these positions, and they want to be admired. Psychopaths want leadership positions because they want more leeway to do what they want. Machiavellians are a little different. They will choose positions to best suit their own needs and goals. For them, it might be more important to pull the strings. If Machiavellians can, as followers, manipulate leaders, that might be enough for them,” Schyns explained.

But such behaviors can be more difficult to detect among followers than leaders.

“Leaders are viewed as the primary persons for developing and executing a strategy, and strategic behavior of followers is less expected,” the authors wrote, “as a consequence, potential shady strategic behavior of followers may be less closely scrutinized, and organizations may miss out on opportunities to mitigate those destructive influences of Dark Triad followers.” In addition, Schyns said, narcissists, Machiavellians, and psychopaths “may behave quite differently to their followers and to their peers than they behave toward their leaders.”

These 15 behaviors can help identify Dark Triad followers, the authors wrote:

Red-flag behaviors

  1. Over-claiming, or falsely taking credit for, contributions to the organization. (narcissism)

  2. Actively promoting themselves. (narcissism, Machiavellianism)

  3. Being aggressive after negative feedback and criticizing the source of feedback. (narcissism)

  4. Treating valued members of the organization (trophy colleagues) differently than those who do not boost their egos. (narcissism)

  5. Demonstrating a selfish perspective with a “choose your battles” mind-set. (Machiavellianism)

  6. Trying to control or minimize other people’s influence. (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy)

  7. Not sharing knowledge with colleagues. (Machiavellianism)

  8. Using manipulation to reach strategic goals. (Machiavellianism, psychopathy)

  9. Scheming for personal benefit without considering consequences for others. (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy)

  10. Competing rather than cooperating. (Machiavellianism, psychopathy)

  11. Making quick, short-term focused decisions without considering consequences for others. (psychopathy)

  12. Making bold, risky decisions without regard to organizational rules or ethics. (narcissism, psychopathy)

  13. Questioning authority figures, rules, and the status quo. (psychopathy)

  14. Bullying or criticizing coworkers to focus on interpersonal relationships instead of tasks at hand. (psychopathy)

  15. Luring coworkers into wild behaviors or seducing coworkers or supervisors into romantic relationships. (Machiavellianism, psychopathy)

What should a manager do after identifying such job candidates or employees?

If you can avoid it, don’t hire them. If you have them, don’t promote them,” Schyns said.

Managers who spot any of these red flag behaviors might want to talk with the person about the behavior, as well as check with other people in the organization the person interacts with, Schyns said. Don’t wait for a performance review period—seek 360-degree feedback about the person.

“It could be just the tip of the iceberg, and there are other behaviors that are potentially problematic. It’s well-advised to have a good look around.”

Coworkers who see a red flag behavior should “say something. Don’t just let it slip. Talk to the person. And talk with others to find out if it happened to them. If it was once, maybe it was just a misunderstanding. But if it’s several times, and it happened to different people, then it is certainly something you need to deal with. You need to talk to your boss. You need to talk to HR. You need to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Schyns said.

“You really have to be careful about promoting such people. Because you may have even more problems once these people get more leeway, more responsibilities, and their own followers, as well.”

In many cases, training can help employees who behave in these ways, she said.

“Machiavellians will go along with learning ways to achieve their goals, which is their main aim. It’s more difficult for narcissists, because they don’t handle feedback well. So you have to position training as a way to make them even better than they already are. I think psychopaths are the most difficult of the three to train. But if we can get them to a point where they understand that training is a useful thing to do, they don’t need to be genuine in going along with it. Faking it might still be helpful, if it means they’re following the rules at work.

“For Dark Triad personalities, if we give them a lot of leeway in organizations, a lot of strategic influence, they will use it. However, if we limit them—with checks and balances and performance feedback, for example—then they might not have opportunities to express those traits. They might not be as nasty if we just keep them in check. It doesn’t mean the trait goes away, it just means they don’t have a chance to express it. Once you know you’ve got these people, then you have to use your human resources measures.”

Narcissists at Work