Friday, 18 January 2013

The dark side of behaviour at work

(We're reporting from this month's Division of Occupational Psychology conference at the Digest. This post is by Dr Jon Sutton, Managing Editor of The Psychologist, and will also feature in that magazine's March issue. @jonmsutton / @psychmag)

The face that launched a thousand peer-reviewed journal articles beamed down from the stage as self-confessed ‘well adjusted workaholic’ Professor Adrian Furnham (University College London) began his keynote. Quips were in ready supply, but Furnham is much more than a crowd pleaser: this was a talk steeped in history and theory.

According to Furnham, there are 70,000 books in the British Library with leadership in the title. But most leaders don’t succeed, they fail, with a base rate of bad leadership collated from various studies of 50 per cent. This is due to incompetence (not having enough of something, or being promoted beyond the job they are good at), or derailment (having too much of a characteristic, such as self-confidence, or creative quirkiness). It’s this later problem that Furnham focused on, identifying three root causes: troubled relationships, a defective or unstable sense of self; and ineffective responses to change.

Furnham highlighted three fundamental issues. Firstly, organisations ‘select in’, for the traits they think will help an employee be a success, rather than ‘selecting out’ for what is going to cause problems. Secondly, it’s assumed that competencies are linearly related to success. And thirdly, employers fail to see the dark side of bright side traits and the bright side of dark side traits. For example, what if a self-confident leader pursues a risky course of action built on overly optimistic assumptions?

How do we characterise what makes a leader destructive? Furnham feels that the early ‘trait’ approach to leadership failed because ‘the list of traits grew remorselessly, leading to confusion, dispute and little insight’. Trait theory also ignored the role of both subordinates and situational factors. This oversight was rectified in the work of Tim Judge – who Furnham called ‘the best living occupational psychologist’ (see Digest coverage here)– which showed the ‘toxic triangle’ of destructive leaders, susceptible followers and conducive environments. The influence of the model was clear in Furnham’s own consideration of the ‘Icarus syndrome’. High flyers fall through poor selection, flawed personality, no or poor role models, and because they are rewarded for toxicity in the organisation.

Furnham then cantered through some typical personality disorder problems in plain English: arrogance, melodrama, volatility, eccentricity, perfectionism etc. I was struck by the simple, neo-psychoanalytic conception of Karen Horney from 1950: people move away from others, towards them or against them (something covered recently). Furnham outlined some just published research on the differences between private and public sector dark side traits, with private sector more likely to move against others through manipulation or creating dramas whereas public sector managers were more likely to show moving away traits such as withdrawal, doubt, or cynicism.

A series of his own studies, generally with huge samples, elucidated sex differences in dark side traits and their relationships with career choice and success. From all this, Furnham distilled some key implications for selection and recruitment. Consider using ‘dark side’ measures; beware excessive self-confidence and charm; do a proper bio-data and reference check; and get an expert to ‘select out’ for you. As for management, the message was to beware fast-tracking wunderkinds, and to seek a mentor, coach or at least a very stable deputy to keep these individuals on the rails.

‘Just as a good leader can do wonders for any group, organisation or country,’ Furnham concluded, ‘a bad one can lead to doom and destruction. Understanding and developing great leaders is one of the most important things we can do in any organisation.’

ResearchBlogging.orgFurnham, A., Hyde, G., & Trickey, G. (2013). Do your Dark Side Traits Fit? Dysfunctional Personalities in Different Work Sectors Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1111/apps.12002

Further reading:
Timothy A. Judge, Ronald F. Piccolo, Tomek Kosalka, The bright and dark sides of leader traits: A review and theoretical extension of the leader trait paradigm, The Leadership Quarterly, Volume 20, Issue 6, December 2009, Pages 855-875, ISSN 1048-9843, 10.1016/j.leaqua.2009.09.004.
Pdf freely available here


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