Callous and Cold. Bad Behaviour in the Workplace! The Dark Triad of Personality Part 3

It has been 20 years since Paulhus and Williams first published their paper on The Dark Triad of Personality. In the third of three articles, I explore the last of the Dark Triad of personality. Saving the most dramatic for last? 

Can you spot this behavioural pattern in your workplace?

This person is cold. They might look right through you at times. There is a steeliness, an unwavering stare. They may interact with you as if you were merely an object e.g. a chair. There is little sincere warmth or real interest in you as a person. They will have learnt that they “should” show some recognition to others, show some warmth and consideration. But it is not genuine. It is an act. They are not swayed by others’ feelings, emotions or reactions. Instead, they do what they want with little regard for the impact on other people. They may appear emotionless and unruffled by events. At times they can be impulsive, easily bored, seek thrills or take extreme risks. They seem to be built to withstand this. Sometimes this impulsiveness can lead to thoughtless behaviour that causes great distress to those impacted. But there is little or no remorse. Occasionally when frustrated or challenged there can be severe and terrifying rage.

Meet the Antisocial: an unfortunate combination of low empathy and impulsivity. Paulhus and Williams named this group the Psychopaths, albeit at what they term “sub-clinical” level i.e. everyday routine Psychopaths, not the extreme type often seen in the movies or those TV documentaries. Nevertheless, this third element of the Triad (the first and second being Narcissists and Machiavellians) probably comes closest to what most people think of when they hear the term “psychopath”.  

A low score on the “Big 5” personality trait of Agreeableness is a common feature for all aspects of the Dark Triad.

Recall that Antisocials may often appear unruffled by events. Many may actually have a physiological “deficit” when it comes to physically experiencing anxiety. They don’t get the butterflies in the stomach, it just doesn’t happen. This is the reason why the lie detector or polygraph (which works off the body’s anxiety or sweat response) doesn’t work for this group. They pass lie detector tests, even though many do eventually end up in prison. The polygraph returns a flat line – no anxiety response means it appears that they aren’t attempting to lie. But it is just because they don’t produce a physical anxiety response!

In our own research for Mosaic tasks, we found that those who scored high on “Antisocial” as measured by a combination of a questionnaire and certain behavioural traces on our Objective Personality Tasks (OPTs) admitted to the following:

• that over the past year they have found themselves thinking “people should just pull themselves together”

• that in the past three years they have rarely tended to do favours for others

• that they have a history of intimidating people either online or in person

• that in the past they have gone out of their way to help others less often than other people

• that they have a history of minor low level criminal offences e.g. truancy at school, graffiti, damaging public property, dumping rubbish, skipping restaurant bills and so on.

• that they have in the past year made rash decisions such as overspending, going on holiday at short notice, saying something they later regretted etc.

This is what they were willing to admit to. We didn’t ask about worse behaviour. So Antisocials can be both lacking in empathy for others and impulsive, easily bored and reckless.

How many of these characters are there walking about? Estimates vary – it depends where you draw the line – but perhaps 1 in 50 or 1 in 100. You might not have had one in your class at school, but there will have been a handful across the classes. Early years teachers are perhaps the first to come across the Antisocial. It becomes apparent very quickly that a few very young children exhibit this pattern of behaviour in the classroom. Teachers notice how the Antisocial interacts with everyone else in the school environment. It can take up a lot of their time. Nature or nurture? The jury is still out.

Can these people change, and what can be done? According to NHS’ UK guidelines change is possible, though some core aspects such as low empathy for others may always remain. For organizations, one of the risks is that such individuals often commit crimes. And of course they can disrupt teamwork and collaboration. However, it is vital to point out that there is a continuum with Antisocial behaviour, with many affected not showing the full pattern described in this article. They may experience only occasional problems. For those who are further interested, read some online accounts from actual sufferers of “Antisocial Personality Disorder” as they describe their upbringing and life history. I challenge you to not feel at least some sympathy.  

For the workplace, what do you think is the best solution? Screen such individuals out at hiring stage? Steer them towards jobs that they will find more satisfying and will have less impact on others? Do you work in HR and have had problems like this in your organization? Do you have any leaders who show this pattern of behaviour?