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  • Writer's pictureStefano Calvetti

A complete guide to the dark triad: understand, recognize, and cope with the darkest side of leadership - Part 2 of 2.

When it comes to leadership, a boss with Dark Triad traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy) can make us extremely uncomfortable.

In the previous post, we explored the meaning of a Dark Triad and the impact of the so-called Dark Leader (a leader with Dark Triad characteristics) on individuals and organizations.

This post aims to provide you with the strategies and mechanisms to cope with Dark Leader.

In other words, using easy parallelism with the main characters from the Star Wars saga, if the Dark Leader in your team can be seen as Darth Vader (or the Emperor Palpatine if he or she sits on the highest chair of the organization), you can be the Jedi that defeats them!

Sensing the Dark Side

The first essential step is understanding if a boss is a Dark Leader. The underlying assumption is that these leaders:

a) Will never recognize their flaws.

b) Will interpret their flaws as strengths, not weaknesses.

c) Will never admit to (or care of) harming individuals and the organization.

d) Will think they are the best leaders ever.

A person wearing the clothes of Darth Vader and attending a meeting in a meeting room. The person is standing on one side of the table. The other people in the room, sitting around the table and dressing in business clothes, are scared and looking down. The room is expansive, with modern furniture
The first essential step is understanding if a boss is a Dark Leader

Unfortunately, unlike Darth Vader, they do not wear black helmets, capes, and uniforms. Thus, recognizing a leader with traits from the Dark Triad can be challenging.

To support your awareness, here are some signs and behaviors that can help you understand if a person possesses Dark Triad traits:

  • Narcissism:

    • Grandiosity and Arrogance: They may exhibit an inflated sense of self-importance and superiority.

    • Need for Admiration: A constant need for attention, affirmation, and praise.

    • Lack of Empathy: Difficulty recognizing or caring about the feelings and needs of others.

    • Exploitative Relationships: Using others for personal gain or self-promotion.

  • Machiavellianism:

    • Manipulation and Deceit: Skilled in using deceit and manipulation to achieve their goals.

    • Cynical Disregard for Morality: Viewing and treating relationships as tools for personal gain.

    • Emotional Detachment: A lack of emotional involvement in relationships, often appearing cold or unfeeling.

    • Strategic Planning: Often very strategic and calculating, always planning several steps ahead.

  • Psychopathy:

    • Lack of Remorse or Guilt: Little to no sense of guilt or remorse for harmful actions.

    • Shallow Affect: Limited range of emotions and inability to form genuine emotional bonds.

    • Impulsivity and Irresponsibility: Tendency to make rash decisions without considering consequences.

    • Charm and Charisma: Can be superficially charming and engaging to manipulate or control others.

It's essential to approach this topic cautiously, as diagnosing personality traits requires professional expertise. However, knowing these signs can help understand and navigate complex workplace dynamics.

Harnessing Your Jedi Powers against the Dark Triad

Undoubtedly, leaders with Dark Triad characteristics can be intimidating. They can ruthlessly leverage their powers and authority to achieve their goal. It is easy to feel unsuitable to face the situation.

Much like a Padawan (a Jedi trainee), we can sharpen our skills to avoid any damage to us and, possibly, to the organization.

a hyperrealistic image of a woman in business attire dueling against a man in business attire with the mask of Darth Vader. They both have laser sabers. The man's laser saber is red, while the woman's is blue. The image represent how all of us can learn how to cope with a leader presenting dark triad traits
You can learn how to deal with a Dark Leader

Like in the previous paragraph, there are a few underlying assumptions:

a) Doing nothing will bring no changes.

b) Pure self-preservation approaches - like isolation and quiet quitting - provide no real protection from this kind of leader.

c) There are multiple "victims" of a Dark Leader.

d) There will always be someone willing to support and listen to you - you can count on me, too.

e) The use of recreational substances like alcohol or drugs may seem like a way to escape or numb your pain. In reality, they worsen your mental health and interfere with your recovery.

That said, dealing with a leader who exhibits Dark Triad traits requires a nuanced and careful approach. Here are eleven strategies you can implement to avoid getting drowned by a narcissistic, Machiavellian, and psychopathic leader:

  1. The first step in this challenging situation is setting clear personal boundaries. Defining what behavior you will and will not tolerate in your interactions is vital, as this can protect you from manipulative or harmful actions.

  2. An essential tactic in such scenarios is meticulously documenting interactions. Keeping a detailed record of encounters, especially those that highlight problematic behaviors, can become invaluable if you need to report the conduct or seek advice from HR or other authorities.

  3. Support systems play a critical role in navigating these waters. Confiding in family members, trusted colleagues, mentors, or a professional coach can provide emotional backing, advice, and an external perspective. This support network can be a lifeline, offering insights and strategies to cope with your challenges.

  4. Maintaining professionalism is key. As Kimberly Williams mentioned in one of the episodes of my podcast "When Leaders Talk," it's important to stay composed and professional in all interactions. Reacting emotionally can escalate the situation and might be used against you. Instead, focusing on your work and personal goals can provide a sense of control and accomplishment. Excelling in your role can also offer some protection, as success and competence are often your best defenses in a toxic environment.

  5. Understanding the behavior patterns associated with the Dark Triad can help you predict their actions and manage your responses to them. This understanding can also guide you in communicating and interacting with them without escalating situations.

  6. You don't have to endure in silence constantly. You have the option to push back. My recommendation is to choose your battles wisely. Not every confrontation is worth the emotional energy, especially if it doesn't serve a larger purpose or protect your well-being.

  7. You should also limit the exposure of your vulnerabilities. It's wise to avoid sharing personal information or showing weaknesses that might be exploited. Keeping interactions strictly work-focused can safeguard you against manipulative tactics.

  8. To maintain mental and emotional well-being, you can develop personal coping strategies. This might include stress management techniques like mindfulness, seeking counseling, or engaging in activities outside of work that promote relaxation and happiness - practicing a sport or a hobby, for example.

  9. You can also evaluate to escalate the situation. If the leader's behavior crosses into harassment, bullying, or other HR or legal violations, you must report it to the appropriate authorities within your organization or even outside of it if you don't feel protected from within your company. Some countries, for instance, enforce strong laws to promote worker protection and workplace well-being. This step should be taken cautiously and preferably backed by the documentation you've been maintaining.

  10. Planning an exit strategy might be the best course of action in some situations. Consider seeking opportunities elsewhere if the environment becomes too toxic and affects your well-being or career progression. This decision, while challenging, can sometimes be the most effective way to protect yourself.

Being Like Luke Skywalker

The interactions with a Dark leader can leave a deep scar in our souls, even when everything is over.

However, even an awful experience like the ones we are discussing here can provide learning opportunities. Handling difficult people and situations is a skill that can significantly benefit your professional development. It can teach resilience, adaptability, and the importance of self-care in the face of adversity. You can also teach or support others. In other words, you can make a difference.

 a person in business attire with a beard, smiling with closed eyes while meditating in a lotus position on their office desk, wearing a Jedi-like cape, with a non-activated laser saber on the desk.
Even after the most distressing experience, we can rewire our brains to overcome the trauma

In her book "The Bullied Brain," Jennifer Fraser discusses the profound impact of abusive relationships on brain development and functioning. She advocates for a multi-faceted approach to recovery, which includes therapeutic interventions, education on the effects of abuse on the brain, and strategies to rebuild self-esteem and resilience. The underlying assumption is that, even after the most distressing experience, we can rewire our brains to overcome the trauma.

This "superpower" is called neuroplasticity, and we all can use it.

Luke Skywalker is the most pivotal character in the Star Wars saga. He learns from his master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and later becomes the mentor to Rey, the Jedi who defeats Emperor Palpatine (sorry for the spoiler). What's unique about him? His incredible power helps him emerge victorious in the most challenging battles. Not only physical skills. He develops great mental power that allows him to be highly resilient.

If you are wondering how Luke Skywalker is connected to this conversation, it is because, after a significant setback, he implemented a series of techniques that helped him recover fully. He is the eponymous of neuroplasticity.

To be like Luke Skywalker, you can employ the following tools:

  1. Self-Awareness: This should not be a surprise since I often write about the importance of self-awareness. In this case, it means to acknowledge your feelings, and the root and effects of the pain you feel. Awareness also means understanding our brain's incredible power of healing. You can increase this awareness by reading books, attending workshops, or listening to podcasts about trauma and recovery. I strongly recommend the book I have already mentioned: "The Bullied Brain" by Jennifer Fraser.

  2. Mindfulness and Meditation: A Jedi loves meditation for many good reasons. These practices help manage stress, anxiety, and other emotions that stem from negative experiences with a Dark Leader. Meditation and mindfulness encourage a focus on the present moment and aid in developing a sense of inner peace.

  3. Self-care: healthy habits like regular exercise, a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and hobbies or activities that bring joy can promote physical, emotional, and mental well-being. It is not a coincidence that the ancient Romans insisted on the motto "Mens Sana in Corpore Sano" (a healthy mind in a healthy body).

  4. Creativity: Tapping into your creative side through art, music, writing, or any other form of expression can help you release emotions, heal wounds, and discover something new about yourself, boosting confidence and self-esteem.

  5. Professional Support: A coach, therapist, counselor, or support group can provide a safe space to talk about your feelings, process your trauma, and learn coping skills. They can also help you identify and challenge any negative beliefs or patterns that may have resulted from your experiences.

  6. Loud voice: You can use your experience to help others in many ways. You can write a book (like Jennifer Fraser) or a blog post (like this one). You can draft legislation to promote workplace well-being (like Vicki Courtemanche, another guest in my podcast). You can publicly denounce a Dark leader. You can actively contribute to changing the culture in your organization to avoid those who have Dark Triad traits reaching the top of their ladder. You can be heard if you want to.

May the Force be with Us

Navigating the dangerous waters of leadership involving the Dark Triad can be a formidable challenge, even for a seasoned Jedi.

As I said, I have been there.

Dealing with a Dark leader tests our professional acumen, personal resilience, and ethical compass.

However, what has helped me is remembering that these experiences, though difficult, can serve as powerful catalysts for personal growth and professional development.

My experience brought me to write about this post with the goal of helping others to react to it. More than this, my experience led me to become a leadership and executive coach.

I don't want other people to go through the same pain and desolation I found myself in.

We can learn about the complexities and flaws of human behavior, the importance of ethical leadership, and the strength that comes from facing and overcoming adversity.

As leaders, coaches, or colleagues, our role extends beyond mere survival in such scenarios; it involves learning, growing, and guiding others on this journey of understanding and navigating leadership, steering away from the dark side of the force.

Feel free to share your thoughts, experiences, and insights to foster awareness and encourage discussions around this topic.

I genuinely believe that, together, we can demystify the complexities of the Dark Triad and contribute to a culture of positive, ethical, and empathetic leadership.

1 Comment

Feb 07

OMG. Everything is so relatable. I had had the experience of dealing with a bad boss... what an awful experience.

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