The dark triad is a personality organization that comprises three psychological traits: psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism. These three traits are considered conceptually distinct, though they overlap and often co-occur within a personality. A fourth trait, everyday sadism, is also conceptually distinct, but if present, it typically appears alongside other traits in the triad, forming an even darker tetrad.
Because of its association with criminal behavior, the dark triad has been studied within the field of forensic psychology. It has also been studied by business researchers because the triad is sometimes found in organizational leaders. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic briefly described behavioral manifestations of the three traits (bold added):
Psychopathic individuals are generally more dishonest, egocentric, reckless, and cruel than the population average. Machiavellianism is somewhat more related to superficial charm, interpersonal manipulation, deceit, ruthlessness, and impulsivity. People who score highly on this trait are morally feeble and likely to endorse the idea that “the end justifies the means” or agree that “it is hard to get ahead without cutting corners here and there.” Narcissism relates to unrealistic feelings of grandiosity, an inflated – though often unstable and insecure – sense of self-worth, and a selfish sense of entitlement coupled with little consideration for others. As the term, and the legend of Narcissus, suggests, narcissistic individuals are so self-indulged that they may end up drowning in their own self-love – this makes it harder for them to focus on others. Narcissists are often charming, and charisma is often the socially desirable side of narcissism: Silvio Berlusconi, Jim Jones, and Steve Jobs personified this.
As Chomorro-Premuzic notes in his article, psychopaths and narcissists often rise to leadership positions. For instance, among those on corporate boards, psychopathy occurs at three times the rate found in the general population. Machiavellianism has also been identified as a factor in personal success, for example among millionaires and entrepreneurs. So if it doesn't land a person in prison, the dark triad, in combination with certain positive traits, can increase the chances for personal success. But Chomorro-Premuzic is also quick to add that those personal gains come at the expense of the organization:
Although there is clearly an adaptive element to the dark triad – which explains why bad guys often win – their success comes at a price, and that price is paid by the organization. In evolutionary terms, dark triad personality characteristics constitute the essence of the freeriding. And the more polluted or contaminated the environment – in a political sense – the more these parasitic personalities will thrive.
Not surprisingly, a number of studies have linked the dark triad to higher incidents of bullying. Moreover, meta-analytic studies have shown significant associations between the dark triad and counterproductive work behaviors (theft, absenteeism, turnover, sabotage, etc.). In an impressive analysis of all the scientific studies published between 1951 and 2011, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy were all positively linked with counterproductive work behaviors and poor organizational citizenship, and Machiavellianism and psychopathy were also negatively linked to actual job performance (as opposed to career success). As reviews have highlighted, “Ponzi schemes, internet fraud, embezzlement, insider trading, corruption, and malfeasance” can all be attributed to dark triad personality traits.
In the HBR article, the author also points out that the triad of traits are normally distributed. An individual can be low, medium or high in these traits. Moreover, moderate levels of these traits can sometimes benefit an organization. But this is often true of personality traits in general because traits represent adaptive responses to challenges. A bit of obsessive-compulsiveness can be beneficial to others depending on one's role in an organization. A lot of obsessive-compulsiveness can completely bog down organizational processes. So a moderate level of a trait of can be a good thing for the group, but high levels of certain traits can be disastrous for the group. This is especially true of the dark triad because persons with this trio of traits can rise to the top, where they have the power to cause the greatest harm in the pursuit of personal gain.