The Dark Triad is a concept which is growing in importance in business and in society. In recent years researchers have variously suggested that these characteristics are linked to some form of success for people – often those who get to the top of the business or political ladder (I am naming no names).

Briefly, The Dark Triad describes three traits which are often seen as malevolent in nature. These are:

  • Narcissism describes how self-obsessed, selfish and self-centred someone can be.
  • Machiavellianism is about the desire to manipulate people and situations, and to maintain power.
  • Psychopathy describes someone who is able to switch off their ability to feel remorse or empathy. Psychopaths are also impulsive and exhibit bold social behaviours.

The first thing to understand is that these are normally distributed in the human population – we all have low, medium or high levels of each of these.

So, although these are often linked to undesirable or anti-social behaviours such as dishonesty, deception, impulsiveness and impetuousness, they are also often associated with charming behaviour, superior negotiating and influencing skills and with strong ambition. These are often appealing in recruitment and development activity which is why it is hard to detect those who are “possessed” of high levels of the Dark Triad.

Several studies including one recently led by Daniel Spurk of the University of Bern, have concluded that there was indeed, what many have suspected, a linked between career success and higher salary and these three traits. And Oxford University psychologist Kevin Dutton, author of “The Wisdom of Psychopaths”  argues that psychopathic traits are common in successful leaders and in fact may help them do their jobs.

So … are the upper reaches of your organisation populated by psychopaths, narcissists and the Machiavellian?

In very recent studies we have seen three studies (University of Western Ontario, London Metropolitan Uni and Queens University, Belfast) all examining whether there is a link between the 4Cs Mental Toughness Concept and the Dark Triad.

And there is and it’s both interesting and valuable.

The Western Ontario study suggested that there was a negative relationship between Mental Toughness and Psychopathy but there was a positive relationship between Mental Toughness and Narcissism (mainly through the Control, Challenge and Confidence constructs).

The study also suggested that there was an adaptive relationship with Narcissism which moderated the undesirable aspects, producing a more socially aware Narcissist – a “nice” narcissist if you like?

There was a small link with Machiavellianism although most of that correlation was with the Control and Confidence elements of the 4Cs model which suggested that Mental Toughness might be factor in Machiavellianism where the goals are the individual’s personal goals.

The London Metropolitan study explored the relationship between the Dark Triad of personality and job performance, and investigated the mediatory role of mental toughness.

The need to understand this relationship is of importance to Organisational psychologists and practitioners who are responsible for selecting and developing employees. This study suggests that moderate levels of narcissism predict relatively lower performance at work than higher or lower levels respectively. Furthermore, the study suggests that this relationship is fully mediated by mental toughness!

Finally research at Queens University, Belfast (Papageorgiou 2017) generally concurred with the Western Ontario findings and concluded “these findings suggest that developing Mental Toughness could facilitate the development of the adaptive—rather than maladaptive—aspects of narcissism.

Studying the joint manifestation of narcissism with Mental Toughness, and in relation to other personality traits, can have implications for eliminating the negative impact and increasing the positive effects, that people exhibiting higher levels of these behaviours have on themselves and on the society”. 

So … an understanding of Mental Toughness and the ability to assess it accurately in others seems to be of some importance and value for those engaged in OD, Leadership Development work, Talent Management and especially those engaged in Coaching Senior Executives.

A footnote:

Narcissists are often thought of as individuals to avoid. However, a study published in 2010 in the British Psychological Society Digest found that their presence can have a beneficial effect in creative team work. When groups of four people were challenged to come up with new ways for a company to improve, it was the groups with two narcissists in their ranks who performed the best. The suggestion is that the presence of some narcissists helps generate healthy in-group competition.

As ever, getting past a superficial understanding of a topic is often important.


Doug Strycharczyk – Managing Director at AQR International

For more information about Mental Toughness and the MTQ48 measure, please contact headoffice @aqr.co.uk

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