Leadership Level and the Dark Side of Personality: An Article Review

by Kathy Hildebrandt, MAOL Student

This paper will provide a review of the article, “The higher you climb: Dark side personality and job level in a sample of executives, middle managers, and entry-level supervisors,” from the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology (Gøtzsche-Astrup, Jakobsen, & Furnham, 2016). The coaching assessment tool featured in the article is the Hogan Development Survey (HDS) and this review will analyze the article’s contribution to the literature surrounding the use of HDS in coaching and leader development.

Article Summary and Highlights

The purpose of the article’s study was to determine the relationship between dark side personality traits and leadership positions held within an organization. More specifically, the study explored the idea that certain derailing tendencies are found more often in executives, middle managers, or entry-level supervisors, which suggests “personality is related to management level, and that, paradoxically, specific dark side traits are related to the ability to climb the management ladder…” (Gøtzsche-Astrup, Jakobsen, & Furnham, 2016, p. 535).        

The theoretical backdrop of the article is that dark side personality traits, as measured by the HDS (Hogan & Hogan, 1997), are different from dark side personality disorders, as measured by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2013). The HDS traits are normal aspects of an individual’s personality, but under stress become self-defeating and ultimately disruptive to a leader’s reputation and career. These HDS traits are sporadic and emerge only in specific contexts. The DSM personality disorders, on the other hand, are pervasive and consistent behaviors that are observed in multiple contexts in an individual’s life and are often treated clinically. This study only examined dark side traits.

Based on research done more than a half-century ago, these traits are organized into three clusters based on the overall theme of the associated behaviors: Moving Away from Others (withdrawing and isolating from others), Moving Against Others (competing with and controlling others), and Moving Toward Others (pleasing others) (Gøtzsche-Astrup, Jakobsen, & Furnham, 2016). Each of the eleven scales (factors) of the HDS fall under one of these clusters.

The article contained a literature review pointing to prior research done around the three-cluster model. These studies have all discovered that certain clusters do have relationships with leadership ability and managerial performance. The authors point out that the existing research on personality and job position primarily focuses on “bright side traits,” and only a few have incorporated the dark side measures. Of those, the authors conclude there are varying, but interpretable, results. Some scales (Moving Against Others cluster) were consistently found to have non-linear, U-shaped relationships to leadership performance – both high and low scores can be implicated in effective leadership. On the other hand, the Moving Away from Others scales were “always associated with negative leadership abilities” (Gøtzsche-Astrup, Jakobsen, & Furnham, 2016, p. 537). And the Moving Toward Others scales were found to have little relationship to leadership performance.

The authors of this article hypothesized similar results with the added distinction of certain clusters correlating with specific job levels. Specifically, they predicted that Moving Against Others scales (Bold, Mischievous, Colorful, Imaginative) will positively predict leadership position; Moving Away from Others scales (Excitable, Skeptical, Cautious, Reserved, and Leisurely) will negatively correspond to job level; and Moving Toward Others scales (Diligent and Dutiful) will not be associated with job level. The study’s methodology included a review of the HDS scores of 264 participants in Danish private-sector companies in the transportation, energy, financial, and manufacturing industries. Participants self-reported on their position information and three job levels were created: entry-level supervisors, middle managers, and executives.

The results of the study largely confirmed the hypotheses. Participants with higher Moving Against scores were significantly more likely to be in executive positions than in entry-level supervisor positions. Those who had high Moving Away from Others scores were also significantly less likely to be in executive positions and more often found in entry-level supervisory positions. Interestingly, those with higher Moving Away From scores were more likely to be executives than middle managers, although the difference is not significant. Additionally, regarding middle managers: no significant difference was found for the Moving Away and Moving Against clusters when compared to executives. The data set for this study contained no trend for the Moving Toward scales, therefore, the hypothesis regarding that cluster was unable to be tested.

Article Analysis        

The following paragraphs will analyze the article’s breakthrough information and how the results will inform others’ opinions on the subject.

Breakthrough Information. While this study largely confirmed previous findings, it did produce two unique discoveries. First, researchers found that only two scales displayed a non-linear relationship with job level; and second, one scale that previously demonstrated no special behavior showed a new effect in this study. The first unique finding is regarding the Bold and Colorful scales (in the Moving Against Others cluster): both entry-level supervisors and executives had significantly lower scores than middle managers. The authors suggest that the behaviors of these scales (seeking control over others) help an individual promote to a certain point, which seems to be at the level of middle management. However, “when greater demands and stresses are put on the individual as he or she advances [to an executive position], traits that were previously conducive to performance become detrimental.” (Gøtzsche-Astrup, Jakobsen, & Furnham, 2016, p. 539), therefore we see fewer successful executives with these high traits.

The second “surprising” (Gøtzsche-Astrup, Jakobsen, & Furnham, 2016, p. 539) finding is that the Imaginative scale (Moving Against cluster) positively and significantly correlated with job level. This scale measures unusual, eccentric, and creative thinking (Hogan & Hogan, 1997). Previous research on the HDS dark side traits found no discernible effect of this scale in regards to leadership positions, and even pointed to research that reveals a negative association with desirable behavioral outcomes such as trustworthiness and dependability. The authors note that the positive effect seen in this study may originate more from the creative thinking aspect of this scale versus the eccentric or unusual thinking aspects.

Article’s Influence. The authors’ literature review notes the dearth of research available on dark side traits and leadership level. While the paper does reiterate findings from other researchers, the overall effect of the article is one of contribution. The study in this article not only corroborates past research, it adds two additional key insights to the body of knowledge surrounding this particular topic.

Moving from the theoretical to the practical, this article provides valuable information for the coach practitioner. Knowing how specific HDS scales are linked to certain job positions, the coach can provide a more customized and well-informed approach regarding development of the dark side traits. For example, if an entry-level supervisor aspires to middle management or executive-level leadership and has a strong profile of Moving Away From traits, the coach can more quickly and confidently identify the potential obstacles for the client that would impact the client’s upward progress.

Conclusion

The article was well-written and easy to follow. More advanced knowledge of statistics and data analysis would have enhanced the reader’s understanding of the results discussion, but after several read-throughs, it became clear what the main points of the article were. It would have also been helpful for the authors to briefly define the commonly referenced statistical concepts such as quadratic, linear, and non-linear relationships to aid the lay practitioner’s understanding.

Overall, this article leaves the reader wanting more. While the main findings confirm what is already known, it introduces new thoughts and insights that spark curiosity and invite further research. It would be valuable to replicate these results in other sectors, such as law enforcement, the arts, or healthcare. Do different industries attract and promote different leaders? Do these industries reward different dark side traits? Another line of inquiry might be to determine if there is an inverse non-linear relationship for certain scales (e.g., what high dark side traits are seen in both entry-level and executives?). Certainly, the field of coaching assessment research is primed for and in need of additional insights regarding dark side traits and leadership positions.

References

Gøtzsche‐Astrup, O., Jakobsen, J., & Furnham, A. (2016). The higher you climb: Dark side personality and job level. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology57(6), 535–541. https://doi.org/10.1111/sjop.12305

Hogan, R. & Hogan, J. (1997). Hogan development survey manual. Tulsa, OK: Hogan Assessment Systems

Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (5th ed.). (2013). American Psychiatric Association.

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