Why Toxic People Get Ahead

March 13, 2018

When you’re in a relationship with a toxic person, all you want to do is escape, at least once that toxicity is revealed to you. However, if your boss is toxic, it’s going to be pretty difficult to extricate yourself without sacrificing your livelihood. Perhaps your boss is constantly making demands on you that you have to race to meet, and you’re finding yourself working nights and weekends (without extra pay) just to keep your head above water. As soon as you’ve finished one task, another one that’s just as time-consuming lands in your inbox. It’s not just that your boss has it out for you, because this seems to be happening to your co-workers. Instead, it’s just a generally poisonous atmosphere your boss creates, leaving everyone feeling equally downtrodden.

We tend to think of toxic people in terms of their general negativity and tendency to cut you down. In close relationships, they make you doubt yourself so that you’re afraid to assert your rights. At work, though, the toxic people who supervise you display their aggressiveness and hostility in the form of those constant demands that keep you in the fear of losing your job if you complain or object. Their power over you is absolute, and they know they can get away with making your life miserable. Your friends and family tell you that you look haggard and stressed, and you know your mental, if not physical, health is suffering. Throughout all this, you may wonder how the toxic people who rose to the top managed to reach their positions. How do toxic people get ahead? New research shows that the key to their “success” lies in their personalities along with their impression management skills.

University of Singapore’s Klaus Templer (2018) begins his investigation into why toxic people get ahead at work with the following observation: “We have seen them, and you have seen them too: Toxic people who progress and climb the career ladder, in organizations and in politics” (p. 209).  Their toxicity may not be evident at first, but once they start their rise to the top, they’re hard to stop. Their urge to step over others leads them to succeed, at least in the eyes of those who have the power to promote them (and may have some of that toxicity themselves).

The personality traits that make up the Dark Triad become the core of the toxic personality, in Templer’s view. These include the tendency to exploit others (Machiavellianism), to have little feeling or regard for their fellow human beings (psychopathy), and to seek, to an extreme degree, being the center of attention (narcissism).  The Dark Triad has been studied in a variety of contexts, including work settings, where the toxic employee was defined in all three facets. Templer believes that you only need one central quality to define the core of the toxic worker, and that is scoring toward the low end of the “honesty-humility” dimension.

There is considerable evidence that low honesty-humility does a good job of capturing such qualities as egotism, materialism, social “adroitness,” unethical decisions at work, delinquency and counterproductive behavior in the workplace, and lack of integrity. Their decisions are selfish, they are vengeful, cheat, and lie. You might think their counterproductive tendencies would limit their ability to succeed in the workplace, but paradoxically, some of these toxic individuals are rewarded with the highest salaries and job promotions of all.

That paradoxical finding can be explained, Templer maintains, by considering the factor of political skill, or “a social competence that includes networking ability, social astuteness, interpersonal influence, and apparent sincerity” (p. 210). In Templer’s model, those with dark personalities who have this political skill are able to wrangle higher performance ratings from their bosses. Again, considering that some of the bosses themselves rose to the top perhaps via similar tracks, it makes sense that they would reward the people they see as like themselves.

Because Templer reasoned that both self and observer ratings of personality would be needed to assess the factors that lead toxic people to succeed, he included supervisor-supervisee dyads who completed a measure of the employee’s political skill. Participants were Singaporean nationals who ranged in age from 16 to 62 years, and they were employed at a variety of organizations in Singapore. The supervisees completed a measure of honesty-humility. They and their supervisors rated themselves on political skills using a well-established measure that assessed such qualities as time spent networking, knowing the “right” thing to do in social situations, paying close attention to the facial expressions of others, ability to communicate effectively, and being good at “getting people to like me.”  Supervisors also rated the job performance of their employees and their ability to facilitate work in the team.

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