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Malignant Personalities: the Face of Evil in Your Life and Organisation

If you’ve worked in a large organisation of any kind, chances are you’ve known people who just don’t seem to play by the same rules everyone else does, people who are happy to manipulate and discard others, who will say or do anything to protect their image and nothing to protect the values and vision of the organisation.  Knowing what these personalities are about, what causes them, how they are wired and how to protect yourself is essential for your personal resilience in the workplace and life in general.

Have you worked with or for people like this?  Almost certainly.  So don’t be surprised if they pop back into your head as you read this.  And you may even gain some insight into a past conflict and how to face something similar in the future.


The Dark Trio

There are three personality types recognised by psychologists that are perhaps of most concern in the workplace.  These are:

  • Psychopathy
  • Narcissism
  • Machiavellian personality

Each overlaps with the others, and even psychologists have often found them difficult to distinguish.  The first two, psychopathy and narcissism, are considered personality disorders, while Machiavellianism is a bit of a catchall for a broad basket of personality traits. 


All three Personalities share these common axes:

  1. lack of empathy
  2. an egocentric worldview
  3. a willingness to use others without regard for their wellbeing



Now, you may be thinking, “Wait, aren’t psychopaths the guys who become serial killers?”  It’s very true, some do.  But psychologists began to recognise in the 1940s that there were a substantial number of psychopaths who, perhaps due to their upbringing, were able to contain and disguise their antisocial tendencies successfully enough to rise in society.  In other words, the ones who get caught are the ones with poor impulse control.  Smart psychopaths break the rules only when they think they can get away with it- and it is that control which makes them dangerous.  Hervey Cleckley, who did much of the early pioneering work on this breed of psychopath, lists some of the traits common to people with the disorder, including:

  • Inability to experience love or genuine emotion
  • Lack of remorse
  • Absence of anxiety
  • Untruthfulness and insincerity
  • Pathological egocentricity
  • Willingness to use and discard others
  • Lack of insight
  • Inability to profit from experience

All of these, of course, can appear in those who are not psychopaths, but as stable constants, they constitute psychopathy.  It is difficult to isolate a single cause, and there have been exchanges between neuroscientists and psychologists debating whether nature or nurture plays the larger role.  That said, the psychopath’s modus operandi has been a subject of interest to leadership theorists and is extremely consistent.



Narcissism, unlike psychopathy, is almost certainly a product of nurture.  It can arise when parents fail to meet a child’s need for positive emotional reinforcement, or when they radically overdo it.  The narcissist hides behind the mask of a carefully-constructed, egotistical worldview.  If he was raised without sufficient emotional support, he does so to hide from unconscious self-punishing feelings of shame, depression, despair and lack of self-worth.  If a narcissist was fed nothing but unconditional approval all the time, he simply maintains the image of superiority and the right of constant acclaim he has been taught to expect.  Both require others to mirror their established worldview and react violently when they do not.  Narcissism shares psychopathy’s lack of empathy for others (all a narcissist’s empathy is turned toward himself), egocentrism and willingness to use others.  The difference is that the narcissist cares about nothing but the acclaim of others, and will do anything to get it.  A psychopath may manipulate the emotions of others to gain power, but ultimately doesn’t care what anyone thinks so long as he has enough power that they can’t damage him.  A narcissist does what he does to maintain an illusion, while the psychopath believes himself to be the ultimate realist and doesn’t care about anything but gaining power over others.  Particularly malignant narcissists may victimise others in order to feel important, but in general their strength lies in their ability to fool almost everyone.


Machiavellian Personality

This one’s a little vague, because it catches elements of both psychopathic and narcissistic personalities that don’t seem strong enough or consistent enough to be classified as either.  To put it simply, all high-functioning psychopaths are Machiavellians, but the reverse may not be true.  Anything said below about psychopaths easily translates with Machiavellians.  As the name suggests, Machiavellians are amoral manipulators who believe themselves smarter than everyone else.  They are the ultimate examples of the Newtonian Worldview.  Their world operates by manipulation, intrigue and deception; no one has any goals beyond narrow self-interest.  Winners are manipulators.  The common person is weak, simple, cowardly and naive.  Machiavellians are about winning- in other words, serving their own distorted ideas of their interests.  Moral and interpersonal considerations are excluded from their thinking, and other people are targets of exploitation for personal gain.



When it comes to dealing with these personalities, knowledge is power.  So, how do they really operate?



Most of us carry a certain set of ordinary assumptions about our interactions with others that exist to make social interaction safe, rewarding and pleasant for all concerned, and not just ethics, but social conventions.  The first thing to understand about these personalities is that they do not share this rulebook.  They are all aware of it, of course.  A psychopath is aware of the rules and feels no need to abide by them, but will actively and systematically manipulate them in others to get what he wants.  A narcissist is aware of the rules, but only applies them in one direction- others must abide by social standards with him.  The reverse does not occur to him- self-criticism is not in his nature.  A Machiavellian is aware of the rules, but thinks they’re silly and that all the smart people manipulate or break them to get ahead. 

There is no reciprocity for any favours done, no acknowledgement of credit where it’s due, no sympathy or consideration for other people- unless they think there’s something to be gained.  They will, however, demand all of these things from everyone else.

The trouble is, they don’t wear horns or carry pitchforks.  High-functioning psychopaths and narcissists are charming, polished, and often well-liked initially, though only the narcissist can sustain that. 

It pays to be attuned to some of the warning signs.  All three personalities tend to turn every conversation to themselves.  With psychopaths, a pattern of bald-faced lies is often the first big warning sign.  Psychopaths consider others to be stupid, and will often put down others when they can gain from it.  Finally, of course, they show no remorse for harming others. 

Narcissists require positive feedback at all times, and react with profound emotion to any suggestion of their own shortcomings, masking humiliation with rage and counterattack.  However, in keeping with their need for praise, narcissists are often extremely attractive to others and capable of cultivating a great deal of loyalty- which they are ultimately incapable of returning.  Narcissists successfully train people to identify with them so strongly that they mirror the narcissist’s defensive rage at any perceived slight.  Both narcissists and psychopaths portray themselves as victims while victimising others. 



Some deeply out-to-lunch scholars have questioned whether these traits are really so bad, if they don’t hold benefits in positions of leadership.  As we will see, this position qualifies as idiocy in the original Greek sense of the term, an ignorant assault upon the public good.  The real question, of course, is “Benefits for whom?”  Certainly not the organisations they lead. 

Decades of research into the operation of these personalities within corporate culture has consistently shown that, while they may occasionally seem to be doing the organisation good on their way up, they eventually bring it crashing down.

Psychopaths and narcissists operate in parallel but slightly distinct ways within an organisation- though it may be difficult to tell the difference.  Psychopaths trade in trust- they insinuate themselves, gain your trust, and discard you when you are of no more use to them.  Systematic and highly tailored flattery of anyone and everyone who might help their career along and naked opportunism at others’ expense are to be expected.  Above all, psychopaths divide and conquer, turning some people against others and stepping on each one in turn on the way to the top.  Once there, they have no incentive to remain in touch with or listen to their subordinates.  They rule through fear, division and manipulation, have no interest in transparency or accountability and will destroy anyone with the talent to be a threat to their position.  The opacity and distrust associated with a culture thick with office politics quickly follows.  Everything is about managing the narrative, controlling what people say and how they think, and propaganda and censorship quickly become internal as well as external weapons.  While their drive may initially seem to give the organisation direction (psychopaths love to act the role of the ‘strong leader’, a narrative they have created for themselves throughout history), the internal cohesion of the organisation, the trust needed to communicate and operate effectively, as well as the decline in credibility of the leadership lead to long-term disaster.  Even the power brokers outside the organisation whom the psychopath inevitably seeks out will collectively exclude him as untrustworthy.  Ultimately, the psychopath can only serve himself- no one else.

A study by Dotlich and Cairo found that arrogance, the hallmark of all of these personalities, was among the major causes of CEO failure.  More specifically, narcissistic traits- refusal to listen to others, refusal of any sort of accountability, resistance to change, refusal to consider one’s own limitations- are heavily implicated.  Narcissists will take credit for everything even if they had nothing to do with it, and refuse accountability for anything, especially if they were primarily responsible.  They seek out and destroy critics.  Their ideal organisation is a hall of distorting mirrors for their own ego, and they can deploy considerable charisma toward this end.  Narcissists expect to be successful, and they may be, initially.  The trouble is that if narcissists become the centres of attention they want to be, they lead not from any idea of the organisation’s interests, but in the interests of their own ego, which has absolute priority.  And since, in the short term, the best way to survive a narcissist is to reflect his own self-image back to him, his entire view of reality comes from sycophants and yes-men, and all negative feedback is kept far away.  Once again, narcissists have an advantage in climbing to the crow’s nest, but inevitably steer for the iceberg once on top. 

None of these personalities are inclined to or capable of serving the collective good.



Strategy is the key word.  Whether consciously (psychopaths) or unconsciously (narcissists), these personalities are strategic players.  Strategy is a gift that can be used for good or evil, and awareness of how the other side plays the game is the second most important advantage you can have.  The first of course is a solid, stable value system with which you are totally aligned.  This not only gives you the strength to stand up, but is utterly incomprehensible to any of these three personalities.

That said, principles and inept strategy still lose.  The first thing to realise is that you’re not going to change these personalities; mediation, counselling, that whole stockpile of institutionalised “play nice” mechanisms are utterly useless in terms of changing their behaviour in the long run.  Psychotherapy has had marginal impact on narcissists and is downright counterproductive for psychopaths, who consider it practice for refining their veneer of civility. 



The name of the game is self-protection.  The best thing if you can manage it is to get out of their way- the sooner you do that, the less your personal danger and the more freedom you have to help the poor people who do have to work with them. 

The problem is that most processes for dealing with conflict, while they may be fine for ordinary personalities, are absolutely wrong for these abnormal personalities.  These processes tend to progress from minimal intervention to more serious action over a long period of time.  The problem is that by speaking up, you expose yourself as a potential threat.  Both psychopaths and narcissists will do everything possible from that moment on to discredit and damage you, and they don’t tend to do that by halves.  They are far better at retaliation than we are at protecting ourselves from it.  And they have been practicing seeming the opposite of what they are all their lives.  It is therefore not advisable to initiate such a process until you are in a position to deliver a decisive blow, unless there is no other way to protect yourself or your peers.  The one thing you can always do is to keep written records of everything.

That said, if you understand how these personalities behave, you understand that they are ultimately their own worst enemies because of their patterns of behaviour, which will eventually become apparent to more and more of the people they work with.  Psychopaths are actually more vulnerable than narcissists, because people tend to remain useful to a narcissist’s ego longer than they can to a psychopath’s career.  Narcissists therefore often have a legion of loyal admirers.  Build your own support network and document your own work and achievements and those of your coworkers to minimise the harm that can be done to you. 

When interacting with these personalities, it is important to keep their mindsets and the signals you are sending to them in mind.  Psychopaths require special care.  Remain grounded in principle and professionalism- assume the identity of the professional when you speak to them.  Don’t let them bait you in any way, and keep calm at all times.  Never appear weak or vulnerable, and don’t give them access or insight into your emotions, nor your opinions of or relationships with others.  Emotion and ethics have no meaning for them except as things to be manipulated, so to get through to them on anything, you must use the language of self-interest.  Set clear expectations with everything, preferably in writing and with witnesses.  Don’t challenge them directly- if they are doing something that needs to be stopped, make sure there are plenty of other people in the loop, and then go up the chain.  And remember, their game isn’t over once you think you’ve stopped them doing something.  If they attempt retaliation, make sure that from that point on, everything is on record.

With narcissists, the easy thing in the short term is to give them what they want as far as you conscionably can.  When you can’t, document and do everything as above.  Network with others who have seen the dark side of the narcissist.  Identify and beware of the narcissist’s cronies. 

These personalities inevitably sow the seeds of their own downfall.  Your objective is to protect yourself and your colleagues until that happens, and to help it happen through thorough preparation when the moment arrives.  Understand that nothing less than a crushing blow can stop these people from being a danger to everyone.  Unfortunately, this usually means letting them get to the point where all their credibility is on the line.  This is the time when they are most dangerous, but it is the mask of credibility that allows them to operate.  It is only by stripping it away and exposing their patterns of behaviour to as wide an audience as possible as undeniably as possible that they truly lose their ability to harm you and other innocent people. 

If all of this sounds rather cold, it should.  The rules that govern ordinary conflicts with people on the normal personality range do not obtain here


Organisational Strategies

The first and best line of defence for organisations against the damage these personalities can do is a firm set of behavioural and ethical expectations at every level including especially senior management (i.e. their goal) backed by concrete consequences.  These personalities can be made to follow rules if they believe it is in their own interests to do so.  Checks and balances, clear systems of personal accountability, and all the related elements of a sound organisational culture are essential.  An organisation that is already healthy won’t be hurt very badly, but the cracks in an organisation that only seems healthy will quickly be found and exploited. 

Education about these personality types and how they operate, contrasted with acceptable behaviours, is also a good idea.  The truth is that they are dangerous by nature to everyone around them, and toxic to any environment they enter, and the sooner they are denied the opportunity to harm others, the better.



These three abnormal personality types are among the most dangerous on the planet, and learning to defend yourself, others and your organisation against them is an important element of personal and corporate resilience.  It is only by understanding how these personalities think and operate that you can effectively deal with them.

For further reading, we recommend The Elephant In the Boardroom: The Causes of Leadership Derailment by Adrian Furnham and MisLeadership by John Rayment and Jonathan Smith.