Anatomy of a Workplace Asshole

How the “Dark Triad” of Personality Traits Drives Bad Behavior

Dr. Cameron Sepah

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InThe Performance-Values Matrix,” I argued that the biggest reason company culture degrades is that companies hire, retain, and promote “assholes” (mercenary employees whose lack of empathy causes interpersonal issues). I also introduced the Performance-Values Matrix as a reinforcement system to assess and address this very problem. Let’s now dive deeper into a clinical understanding of “asshole” behavior and how it can be carefully managed in a corporation.

Part I: Anatomy of an Asshole (The Dark Triad)

“Asshole” is not a term I use clinically or scientifically, but rather commonly because it provides a shared understanding of something you “know when you see it.” My goal here is to offer insight into and clearly categorize a pattern that you probably intuitively recognize.

Clinically, there are three distinct types of socially aversive personality traits, known as the “Dark Triad”: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. These traits are dimensional in the sense that all of us fall somewhere on the spectrum, but only those who are very high in the trio of traits can be considered diagnosable with antisocial personality disorder. If you’re curious, you can take the online Short Dark Triad personality test to see what percentile you exhibit in these three traits, compared to the general population.

The key to understanding the Dark Triad is that while all three share a callousness toward others that encourages manipulativeness, they do so for distinct reasons. Psychopaths are driven by short-term tangible rewards and engage in reckless, antisocial behavior to get them. Machiavellians are fueled by long-term tangible rewards and will strategize schemes to get them. Narcissists are motivated by whatever boosts their ego, whether it be tangible rewards or simple praise that validates their idealized self-image.

Psychopathy, aka the Gordon Gekko

Psychopaths are your typical movie villains. Their emotionality is callous and aggressive (manifested as angry outbursts or even physical violence with little remorse) and their behavior is impulsive and irresponsible…

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Dr. Cameron Sepah

CEO, Maximus. Med School Professor. Executive Psychologist to CEOs & VCs.