How to deal with the Dark Triad (psychopaths, narcissists, machiavels) while avoiding unethical office politics

Most of us have come across bullies in the workplace – weak cowards that pick on those they perceive as weaker themselves. And the moment their victims fight back and show some backbone, the bully will often back down.

However, there are certain individuals who stand outside of the normal bell curve of normal behaviour and make your standard insecure, cowardly bully look kind. I’m talking about psychopaths, narcissists and Machiavels. And recent research is now showing that there’s a great deal of overlap between the three traits, and it’s been termed the Dark Triad.

People who show traits of the Dark triad are ruthlessly self-serving and confidently pursue their own goals, they lack empathy, they’re aggressive and disagreeable, and often they’ve a highly inflated self-esteem.

In 2010, a “Dirty Dozen” scale – a simple 12-item rating scale – was developed to make it easier to spot these potentially troublesome traits. 

The Dirty Dozen scale

If you think someone you work with possesses the Dark Triad personality traits, take a look at the Dirty Dozen scale.

Rate each item on a 7-point scale as you think it applies to this person. Of course, you can also rate yourself on these qualities to see how you measure up:

The total score can range from 12 to 84, but you can also break down the scales into the three traits as follows:

  • Machiavellianism = 1, 5, 7, 10
  • Psychopathy = 2, 4, 6, 9
  • Narcissism = 3, 8, 11, 12

45 is considered very high total on the Dirty Dozen scale. 

Knowing how to deal with people that show traits of either psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, or all these combined in the form of the Dark Triad, are all discussed in my online video workshop, How to Engage & Influence Stakeholders through Ethical Office Politics. Below I discuss characteristics of each three types, as well as tips of dealing with each, which I expand on in my online video workshop.

Machiavels in the office & the office politics they play

Machiavels are the master chess-player out to promote their own status and power.  

Characteristics of Machiavels include:

  • Cynical, untrusting of others, and cunning. 
  • Keen to control others, often through deliberate manipulation. 
  • They don’t conform to normal codes of ethic, so don’t conform to others’ views. This makes them highly adaptable – changing his views and support for others in order to get what they want.
  • Have a knack for slinking out of trouble, and passing the buck and blame on to others. 
  • Quick to take credit for others’ hard work.
  • Non confrontational. 
  • Live through personas at all times, never showing true self. 
  • Deep embedded fear of failure and getting things wrong – of not being anything but perfect.
  • Don’t like taking any risks, everything in their world is calculated.
  • Find childishness or authenticity difficult to manage, in their world, it must be some kind of an act – they just can’t quite work out the purpose of it, that, or they just think you’re stupid for being vulnerable.

Tips on dealing with Machiavels (while avoiding unethical office politics):

  • Don’t assume that because you do something for them, they’ll return the favour. Covey’s Emotional Bank Account does not apply here. They’re immune to the law of reciprocation. 
  • Don’t wear you’re heart on your sleeve. If you let a Machiavel know what makes you tick, you’ve armed them against you.
  • Don’t think that you can win over a Machiavel by arguing over what’s right or wrong – they don’t give a damn about ethics. 
  • The best way to get what you want from a Machiavel is in public. If you can get them to agree something publicly then you might be onto a winner, they might hate you for it, but it will be difficult for them not to keep their commitment. 
  • It’s very important to manage your stakeholders, you can take a lesson from your Machiavel here. He is always lining people up to suit his ends, and while I don’t suggest you do the same, it’s important that you map out your stakeholders and work out who your allies are, who is a threat to you and who is on the fence, then spend quality time making sure you’ve a group of loyal supporters who can back you up when you need them and who won’t be swayed. 
  • Another way to get what you want, is to make it about them, and make them look good in the process.You can try asking questions to find out more about what they think, they might be vague, but it could deliver some useful insight into what they’re thinking. And you can use this to align your request with something that’s important to him.

Psychopaths in the office & the office politics they play

We’re not talking about axe-welding PSYCHOPATHS here. You can be a subclinical, or what’s called a ‘successful’ psychopath – someone who’s not locked up in a psychiatric ward. 

Some scary figures:

  • 1% of the population are psychopaths – so that’s 665,000 of them in the in the UK, and  over 3 million in the US.  
  • A 2016  study, by forensic psychologist Nathan Brooks, showed 21% of CEOs have clinically significant psychotic tendencies. That’s 1 in 5 – similar to the proportion of psychopaths in prisons! 

Characteristics of psychopaths:

  • They lack any remorse, regret or guilt, and show no empathy, whatsoever, about other people’s distress.
  • They’re pathological liars.
  • They refuse to take personal responsibility and blame others for problems in their lives.
  • They’re controlling, manipulative and violate the rights of others.
  • They’re confrontational and unpredictable. 
  • They’re thrill-seekers and are impulsive, and often behave irresponsibly and show disregard for normal social behaviours. 
  • They often hide all the above through superficial charm, and often, they can be highly successful in certain industries like TV production and banking, and go undetected for years.  

Tips on dealing with psychopaths (while avoiding unethical office politics):

  • Unfortunately, there’s not a great deal you can in a one-to-one situation with a psychopath – he’s immune to reason, empathy or intimidation. But by being aware what type of person you are dealing with then you can avoid wasting time with him. So the best advice, if this is possible, is to avoid him.  
  • If you’re a peer of his, and you’re in anyway in direct or indirect competition with him, you need to be aware that he or she is almost certainly trying to undermine behind your back, and you need to speak to your stakeholders to find out what’s been said about you so you can clear your name. 
  • Don’t believe anything he or she says to you – just assume they’re lying. 
  • The good things is that psychopaths invariably move on from an organisation when they’ve burnt all their bridges. So, be patient. 

Narcissists in the office & the office politics they play

This third type is growing as child-led parenting is leading to an increasing number of people believing they are ‘special’ (rather than what we all, which is unique) and they believe they’re destined for greatness and should therefore receive special treatment. Psychologist Jean Twenge showed that in 2006, 24% of undergraduates showed very high levels of narcissism. 

Characteristics of narcissists:

  • Hugely inflated sense of their own abilities, attractiveness, intelligence and charm. 
  • Constantly seek praise.
  • Intolerance to criticism.
  • A sense of entitlement. 
  • Exhibitionist tendencies.
  • High risk–takers.
  • Impulsive and think only about the short term. 
  • Their reputation and image is all. 
  • They will go to huge lengths to boost their credit and worth in the eyes of others. 

Tips on dealing with narcissists (while avoiding unethical office politics):

  • Dealing with these guys is a lot easier than dealing with psychopaths or Machiavels. In fact, if you think of narcissists as big insecure children, and how you would deal with them, you can’t go too far wrong. Flatter them; point out the short-term gains of your approach over others; allow them to be in the spotlight.
  • But never point out their mistakes, in fact, never make them wrong about anything and especially never ever show them up in public. Their public persona is their most treasured possession and they will never forgive you if you mess it up, in any way.
  • The best thing when dealing with narcissists is that they don’t look to hide anything, their motivations are out in the open. And when you know what motivates people, dealing with people is a whole lot easier.

How to deal with the people showing traits of the Dark Triad is discussed in my online video class, How to Engage & Influence Stakeholders through Ethical Office Politics.

As you’ll see in my module outlines, this course is not about becoming a ‘player’, a shark, but rather about how you can navigate office politics in such as way as both you – and your employer – get what you want, and what’s in both of your interests.

Written by Peter Willis, online course tutor and co-founder of Unchain Your


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