Donald Trump’s dark moods are hitting the headlines on an almost daily basis, with reports of a White House in chaos and employees struggling to cope with a volatile and unpredictable leader. Dr Nadine Page, Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School, here talks to CEO Today about the ‘dark side’ leaders can often take up.
His behaviour is undoubtedly extreme, but not as uncommon as you might think. Leaders with dark personality traits are alive and well in the workplace, but as my research (and Trump’s fading popularity) shows, their behaviour could well be taking them on a downward spiral.
At Hult International Business School, we have been looking at how the dark triad of personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy) play out in the workplace.
If you’ve ever worked for a leader with a ‘dark’ side you will recognise the typical behaviours people display. Maybe you’ve had a manager who’s a bit of a narcissist – someone who is convinced their star shines brighter than anyone else’s and is constantly seeking out the spotlight.
Perhaps you’ve been bruised by an encounter with someone with Machiavellian tendencies – who plots and schemes and seems able to turn any situation to their advantage. Then of course there’s the cold, calculating psychopath, who appears to be completely lacking in empathy and behaves in unpredictable ways.
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that these challenging and destructive behaviours are not conducive to good working relationships. People who work for these kinds of leaders are often unhappy in their roles and don’t stick around for long.
That has a corresponding impact on the leader’s ability to do their job – and many, like Trump, find their best people turning against them or eventually abandoning ship altogether.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like that. Leaders who recognise that their behaviour isn’t always as good as it should be, can take action to make their dark side brighter.
If leaders take positive action to improve their relationships with their followers, it helps to ‘buffer’ or mitigate the negative effects of their dark side.
Our findings also suggest that similarity, rather than difference, in leader-follower personality traits results in much better working relationships. This is partly because people can better understand and empathise with their manager’s behaviour if they know deep down that they have similar traits themselves.
If a leader and one of their team both have Machiavellian tendencies, for example, they might quite happily join forces and come up with a clever but manipulative plan which helps them achieve their joint goals, even if it has negative consequences for the wider business.
So what practical steps can you as a leader take to make your dark side brighter?
Accept you’re not perfect: The first step is accepting that you actually have a dark side (most of us have, to some degree). We may not like admitting that our behaviour isn’t always perfect, but if you don’t acknowledge it, nothing will change.
Get to know your dark side: Get a better understanding of what your dark side looks like and when it is more likely to emerge. It may be more active, for example, at times of stress or when you are tired or bored. Keeping yourself physically and mentally healthy is important, as your dark side is more likely to come into play when your resources are depleted.
Ask for feedback: It may feel uncomfortable, but asking those who work with or for you for feedback on your behaviour can be really valuable. Some people in your team might be more sensitive to the impact of your dark side than others. Knowing how your behaviour is being received is one step further forward towards managing the impact you have on others.
Find ways to help you cope: There are a number of coping mechanisms you could use to help you get through difficult times when you know your dark side is lurking in the shadows, waiting to jump out. Scenario planning or having set behavioural routines such as in the way you work with people in your team can help, and will mean that they know what to expect from you. Management develop programmes that involve going through stress inducing experiences in a safe environment can also be useful, as can working with a leadership coach.
Time will tell whether it is possible for Donald Trump get his dark side in check and lessen the negative impact some of his behaviour appears to be having on those around him. But it’s not too late for the rest of us. It takes effort and commitment to stay focused and make a real change to your behaviour – but if you are able to fine-tune your personality, you will become a better leader.