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Leader or Bully?


by Barbara Ruland, SIOP Communications Specialist

Study Shows Those with “Dark” Traits Can Ace Pre-Employment Tests but Fail at Work

Poor hiring and promotion decisions can be costly for organizations, draining resources both directly and indirectly through the broader effect on staff morale and productivity. Even greater problems can rise when poor hires seem to ace pre-employment tests and find their way into an organization.

Increasingly, success in managerial and leadership roles hinges on creating successful work relationships. Assessment centers, with a reliance on interpersonal behavioral observation and evaluation, have come to be viewed as one of the best methods of screening candidates for those roles.

But a study by Colby Kennedy, a research scientist at HumRRO, and Brian Hoffman, chair of the industrial-organizational psychology program at the University of Georgia, shows candidates high in certain “dark” personality traits excel in these assessments but do not create successful working relationships with those they supervise.

The research will be presented at the 2017 Annual Conference for the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, in Orlando on April 27-29.

Kennedy and Hoffman used an 11-dimension model of traits from the Hogan Development Survey, with a focus on the “dark triad,” composed of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Thumbnail sketches show narcissists as grandiose egotists constantly seeking attention; Machiavellians are highly manipulative and amoral; and psychopaths combine elements of impulsivity and remorselessness.

The researchers used a sample of 627 managers from a Fortune 100 company, collected over a period of about 2 years by Development Dimensions International. They tested hypotheses related to whether individuals high in dark traits associated with manipulation and egocentrism perform well in assessment center ratings, and how those personality traits predict their later relational performance on the job.

Kennedy and Hoffman found that assessment center ratings were higher for those subjects with more dominant dark traits, even though those individuals were found to show poorer relational skills on the job.

“The implication is that assessment centers really are not operating as expected for individuals high in narcissism or other dark traits,” Kennedy said.

Individuals high in the dark traits are typically charismatic, energetic, and confident, attributes that are initially seen as positive. However, these traits are also often linked with aggression and antisocial behavior, which are counterproductive in the context of trust-based working relationships.

“Relationship building is hard to assess in a short-term assessment, even if it’s a high-fidelity scenario like an assessment center,” Kennedy said. “Building trust is something that happens over time, and it’s difficult to capture in a half-day or day-long experience.”

Kennedy and Hoffman’s findings warn against relying entirely on assessment center scores in selecting managerial or leadership candidates.

Even organizations that don’t use assessment centers should take heed. The results of the study could be generalized to other face-to-face assessment tools, including interviews, which might be similarly susceptible to the dynamic of charismatic self-promotion associated with these dark traits.

“Based on past research and our own findings, we wouldn’t expect that leaders who are high in manipulation and egocentrism would do very well in leadership roles, and we would hope that, accordingly, they would not do well in an assessment center of managerial performance,” Kennedy said. “But that’s essentially what’s happening.”

Kennedy advises that organizations use a variety of tools for assessment. 

“All assessment tools have disadvantages and advantages,” she said. “And a good strategy is to use a number of pieces of information to make a decision about a hire or promotion.”

A written personality test, specifically one that probes for the candidate’s ability to work well with others, is a good counterbalance for an in-person assessment, Kennedy said.

“Because a personality test is written, it’s not susceptible to the same interpersonal dynamic that might be going on in an assessment center,” she said.

Organizations working in the selection field are also developing interactive, rich-media assessments that simulate realistic job scenarios. These instruments test for the same abilities that live assessment centers do while offering a few advantages, including lower cost and the mitigation of bias created by a candidate’s interpersonal presentation.

A business might also use references to examine a candidate’s relational ability, although, as Kennedy said, “It’s not a perfect system because candidates tend to nominate people who will give them good references.”

“But if you do talk to a supervisor or someone else the candidate has worked with as a reference,” she continued, “make sure to ask questions about how they work with others to get at some of those longer-standing relational behaviors.”

Whatever the size of the organization, it’s crucial to ground the selection process in a comprehensive job analysis of the specific role and in the context of the organization.

“Context is very important to consider when you’re looking at any of these issues,” Kennedy said. “I think there can certainly be differences around even the average level of these traits in certain organizations or sectors, and that can influence how this phenomenon plays out.” 

Email Colby Kennedy