The psychopath in your office: How ruthlessness, risk and narcissism pay off at work

A study examines how Machiavellian tendencies, self-involvement and impulsivity affect the workplace


Erin Coulehan
January 6, 2016 12:41AM (UTC)

My friends have been tossing around the word “ruthless” as an adjective for a while now. Certain behaviors and situations have been deemed “ruthless,” but not as a pejorative. Cutthroat and abrupt decisions have gained respect from my peers who are working to build their careers and reputations. I haven’t adopted this trend largely because of the term’s sinister implications: I like to think of myself as a fair person, and ruthlessness has often seemed unnecessary. As I’ve gained more experience in different work environments, I’ve seen ruthlessness in action and studying psychology has assisted me in recognizing various degrees of ruthless behavior.

We’re all familiar with Patrick Bateman-figures from TV and film, maybe we’ve met some in real life. The charming psychopath who’s wormed his way up the ladder dressed in a suit and bathed in self-regard. We think of psychopaths on Wall Street and other high-power careers, but as it turns out, these figures are in every industry. And then some.

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A new study aligns itself with the idea that ruthlessness in the office is not only common, but also multifaceted. Daniel Spurk from the University of Bern in Switzerland conducted a survey using 800 participants from varied work industries to compare the dark triad of personality traits: Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism. Participants responded to statements such as “I lack remorse” and “I like others to pay attention to me” in addition to providing information on their careers

Spurk found that those who exhibit these traits tend to be more professionally successful, and published the results in the journal of Social Psychology and Personality Science. Surprisingly, the survey’s results suggested psychopaths are the worst of the worst in terms of performance and financial earning, which Spurk attributes to the inherent impulsivity and risk-taking tendencies associated with psychopathy. A psychopath’s intelligence, according to Spurk, can determine their success based on their ability to temper their impulses and gauge which risks are worth taking.

Calculation and manipulation, hallmarks of Machiavellianism, were associated with high degrees of career success in participants. Manipulative tendencies were seen to aid professional ascension based on the ability to read people and mold social situations in one’s favor. To bend the ear or pull the strings of the decision maker provides an advantage of influence for those with such inclinations.

In terms of financial earning, narcissists stole the show. The survey found that people with narcissistic qualities also use various degrees of Machiavellian manipulation to increase earnings.

“Individuals high in narcissism have good impression management, so they can convince their colleagues or supervisors that they are worth special advantages,” wrote Spurk.

Based on the results of the study, it’s tempting to consider adopting some of these traits? Darkness is always sexy, and who wouldn’t want to flirt with their self-destruct button for potential gain?

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Spurk points out that while narcissists may seem initially charming and effervescent, the novelty wears off and those well-acquainted with them often find them exhausting. Although they may earn more money, they lose out in terms of social affluence.

Additionally, if and when someone with Machiavellian tendencies is exposed for their ruthless and calculating behavior, they run the risk of coming undone. No one wants to unravel in a web they’ve weaved.

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Professional success aside, studies have suggested generous and kind people tend to live longer and more fulfilling lives. While it’s intriguing to think about being steely, successful and aloof, it’s important to assess the fact that those with ruthless characteristics from the dark triad spend their lives alone and unhappy. For most, I don’t think it’s worth the trade off.

10 Signs Your Man Is A Psychopath


Erin Coulehan

Erin Coulehan is a freelance journalist with work in Rolling Stone, Elle, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @miss_coulehan

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