Don Draper in Mad Men. Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. When we think of success, we often picture rather brutal characters who will happily trample over others’ feelings in the pursuit of fame and fortune. It’s not hard to imagine how such individuals could win in a cut-throat world.
However, there’s more than one way to be bad. As BBC Future explored last year, psychologists have recently identified three traits that might describe the most ruthless people. They are:
Machiavellianism: characterised by cynical manipulation
Narcissism: how self-centred you are
Psychopathy: a combination of risky impulsivity and callousness
Occasionally, all three corners of this “dark triad” converge in a single person, who is vain, scheming, and unfeeling, but sometimes you can score highly in one characteristic but not the other.
So, to get ahead, does it matter what ‘type’ of ruthless you are?
Previous evidence had suggested that psychopathy is slightly more common among high-flying CEOs than the general population – the so-called “snakes in suits”. The idea was that cool, ruthless and somewhat risky behaviour is occasionally demanded in the office. But it was unclear how the other kinds of dark personalities fare in the workplace.
Daniel Spurk at the University of Bern in Switzerland has now attempted to answer these questions with a comprehensive study that compares all three of the traits of 800 German employees from all kinds of industries. Using an online survey, he asked them to rate statements such as “I lack remorse” or “I like others to pay attention to me” and also quizzed them about their careers to date.
His results, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, were surprising.
Despite the previous findings on “snakes in suits”, Spurk found that the psychopaths in his sample actually performed worse on his measures of success: they earned less than their peers and tended to have lowlier positions on the career hierarchy. As you might expect, given these findings, they were also less satisfied with their lot.
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