The Career Advantages of Crazy Bosses (and People)

January 20, 2014 by Ken Nowack

“I would imagine that if you could understand Morse code, a tap dancer would drive you crazy.”  

Mitch Hedberg

stk141221rkeResearch from Susan Fiske and colleagues (2007) from Princeton University suggest that within 1/5th of a second when we interact with others we make a determination of that individual being either a “friend” or “foe.” This recognition has an evolutionary advantage that confers survival but has implications for interpersonal interactions with others.

Fiske and her colleagues suggest two universal dimensions of social evaluation of others: warmth and competence. Their data suggests that people perceived by others as warm and competent elicit uniformly positive emotions and behavior, whereas those perceived as lacking warmth/empathy and competence elicit uniform negativity (e.g., those low in social and emotional competence).  People classified as high on one dimension and low on the other elicit predictable, ambivalent affective and behavioral reactions ((Fiske, S., et al., (2007). Universal dimensions of social cognition: Warmth and competence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 77-83)).

At the end of the day, we basically size up others on these two major personality traits (Agreeableness and Conscientiousness).

What “dark” personality factors below do you think are most associated with extrinsic career and financial success?

  1. Narcissistic personality (characterized by behavior or a fantasy of grandiosity, a lack of empathy and a need to be admired by others. Narcissistic personality has a pathological unrealistic or inflated sense of self-importance, has an inability to see the viewpoints of others, and is hypersensitive to the opinions of others)
  2. Machiavellianism (characterized as an individual who employs aggressive, manipulative, exploiting, and devious moves to achieve personal or organization objectives)
  3. Obsessive Compulsive behavior (characterized by perfectionism and inflexibility as well as uncontrollable patterns of thought and action)
  4. Avoidant personality (characterized by a pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, extreme sensitivity to negative evaluation, and avoidance of social interaction)
  5. Anti-Social personality (characterized by a lack of regard for the moral or legal standards in the local culture–psychopaths)
  6. Borderline personality (characterized by a lack of ones own identity, with rapid changes in mood, intense unstable interpersonal relationships, marked impulsively, instability in affect, and instability in self-image)
  7. Schizotypal personnality (characterized by peculiarities of thinking, odd beliefs, and eccentricities of appearance, behavior, interpersonal style, and thought)

An interesting study just published by Bart Willie and colleagues (2012) from Ghent University explored how aberrant personality tendencies are associated with career and financial success ((Willie, B. (2012).  Expanding and reconceptualizing aberrant personality at work: Validity of Five-Factor Model (FFM) aberrant personality tendencies to predict career outcomes.  Personnel Journal, DOI: 10.1111/peps.12016)).  The authors used a well-established five factor personality inventory called the NEO PI-R on a sample of college alumni (257) and followed them for 15 years.

Several findings were noteworthy:

  1. FFM aberrant personality tendencies were highly stable across time, with test-retest correlations ranging from .61 (Narcissistic) to .73 (Avoidant).
  2. Obsessive-Compulsive tendency was largely unrelated to career outcomes.
  3. Antisocial and Narcissistic characteristics tended toward higher hierarchical and financial attainment (i.e., they rose higher in job levels and made the most money).
  4. FFM aberrant personality tendencies showed incremental validity in the prediction of career outcomes beyond FFM general traits.
  5. With regard to income and number of subordinates, for instance, the FFM Avoidant tendency clearly outperformed Antisocial and Narcissistic tendencies (but in a negative way—those who were more apt to be socially inhibited, sensitive to negative evaluation and feeling inadequate do not rise in organizations nor make as much money over the course of their careers).

Organizational psychopaths are generally more motivated, competitive, political and better than other leaders to rise in the organization. They are more motivated because they are turned on by power and prestige. They are equipped for career success because they lack a genuine concern for others, are ruthless at times and prepared to lie to get what they want, and typically present a charming façade and appear to be an ideal leader (at least initially). These results are interesting in light of several findings suggesting that narcissistic leaders might rise in organizations but they are certainly not valued.

A classic study by Palhaus (1998) explored the emergence of leadership in groups ((Paulhaus, D. (1998). Interpersonal and intrapsychic adaptiveness of trait self-enhancement: A mixed blessing? Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 197-208)). His study and findings can be summarized below:

Two longitudinal studies (7 weeks) explored leadership dynamics in unstructured groups in which participants were strangers. Narcissism predicted making a strong initial impression and being selected as leader. These individuals were subsequently rated negatively by the group as a result of arrogance and high-handedness at the end of the 7 week period.

His findings suggest that just acting confident and speaking up seem to be the initial ingredients for the emergence of leadership. Why they emerge as leaders isn’t really that clear because most group theories suggest that people can’t attain influence simply by behaving assertively and forcefully—they really need to have intelligence and skills.

Perhaps companies should spend more time screening for these aberrant personality traits (assessment of these subclinical factors are legally defensible and do not violate the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) of 1990 as the NEO PI-R is not a substitute for medical/clinical diagnoses).  In fact, the Employer’s Liability Act (1969) holds organizations responsible for the safety of their employees making assessment of aberrant personality factors perhaps a necessity.  Alternatively, employees “flagged” as being in high aberrant categories might still be hired but given coaches or referred to EAP programs for “onboarding career counseling.”

Taken together it is important to keep in mind “bright traits” may also have a “dark side” and that the “dark side” may have “bright” effects.

Overall, aberrant personality factors are pretty stable and tend to predict career outcomes 15 years in the future.

Call me crazy, but aberrant tendencies covering the odd/eccentric domain (e.g., Schizotypal) or tendencies from the anxious/fearful cluster (e.g., Avoidant) remain important to understand in both new hires and existing leaders.

The new “bible” of aberrant personality disorders called the DSM-5 actually now categorizes six distinct disorders so there at least half-a-dozen styles that might actually have some career and life advantages….Be well….

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development, Selection

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  1. Debbie Burke-Benn says:

    Love this entry, we really need to talk more about this challenge.

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