Wonder why some toxic people rise to the top?
We tend to think of toxic people in terms of their general negativity and tendency to cut you down.
When you're in a relationship with a toxic person, all you want to do is escape, at least once that toxicity is revealed to you. However, if your boss is toxic, it's going to be pretty difficult to extricate yourself without sacrificing your livelihood. Perhaps your boss is constantly making demands on you that you have to race to meet, and you're finding yourself working nights and weekends (without extra pay) just to keep your head above water. As soon as you've finished one task, another one that's just as time-consuming lands in your inbox. It's not just that your boss has it out for you. Instead, it's just a generally poisonous atmosphere your boss creates, leaving everyone feeling downtrodden.
We tend to think of toxic people in terms of their general negativity and tendency to cut you down. In close relationships, they make you doubt yourself so that you're afraid to assert your rights. At work, though, the toxic people who supervise you display their aggressiveness and hostility in the form of those constant demands that keep you in the fear of losing your job if you complain or object. Their power over you is absolute, and they know they can get away with making your life miserable. Your friends and family tell you that you look haggard and stressed, and you know your mental, if not physical, health is suffering. Throughout all this, you may wonder how the toxic people who rose to the top managed to reach their positions. How do toxic people get ahead? Research shows that the key to their "success" lies in their personalities along with their impression management skills.
Their toxicity may not be evident at first, but once they start their rise to the top, they're hard to stop. Their urge to step over others leads them to succeed, at least in the eyes of those who have the power to promote them. The personality traits that make up the Dark Triad become the core of the toxic personality. These include the tendency to exploit others (Machiavellianism), to have little feeling or regard for their fellow human beings (psychopathy), and to seek, to an extreme degree, being the centre of attention (narcissism). University of Singapore's Klaus Templer believes that you only need one central quality to define the core of the toxic worker, and that is scoring toward the low end of the "honesty-humility" dimension.
There is considerable evidence that low honesty-humility does a good job of capturing such qualities as egotism, materialism, social "adroitness," unethical decisions at work, delinquency and counterproductive behaviour in the workplace, and lack of integrity. Their decisions are selfish, they are vengeful, cheat, and lie. You might think their counterproductive tendencies would limit their ability to succeed, but paradoxically, some of these toxic individuals are rewarded with the highest salaries and job promotions of all.
What about the truly humble who aren't trying to lie and cheat their way to the top? Templer found that there was a positive relationship between humility and team facilitation. Although organisations are better off when they hire employees who will be honest and good team players, there may also be times when a company needs that toxic person to carry out such cost-saving measures as downsizing, closing entire departments, or winning showdowns with the union. Even though this can increase employee dissatisfaction and stress, executives may believe they have no choice but to give such people the power they need to get jobs done.
What can you do knowing that your toxic boss made it to the top by virtue of his or her dark personality? Obviously, there's little you can do to unseat this person unless you can demonstrate out and out harassment or mistreatment and then can take legal action. Instead, polish up your political savvy and, though you might find it difficult to do, play the impression management game. You can also, if you wish to take the honest route, ensure that your ability to be a good team player shines through in performance evaluations where your collegiality wins the day.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne is a Professor Emerita at the University of Massachusetts Amherst