Why Dark Personalities Can Get Ahead

Ray Williams
2 min readJan 30, 2024

While most people would argue and support the concept that “good people” — those who are unselfish, altruistic and kind — should get ahead, how do we explain the reality of dark personalities — toxic, sociopathic and selfish people —who are successful?

In the professional discourse on personality traits and their impact on organizational contexts, the phenomenon of individuals with dark personality traits achieving success in corporate hierarchies presents a complex paradox. This issue was methodically examined in a study by Mareike Kholin, Bastian Kückelhaus, and Gerhard Blickle at the University of Bonn, which was published in Personality and Individual Differences.

The study’s findings indicate that individuals exhibiting dark personality traits — characterized by a notable lack of honesty and humility — can easily ascend within organizations and achieve positions of influence. This occurs despite these individuals often causing significant harm to their coworkers and the organization, even when they receive low-performance evaluations from supervisors and peers.

Central to the study’s conclusions is the role of political skill. The researchers posit that individuals with dark personality traits excel in political maneuvering rather than technical or knowledge-based skills, enabling them to mask their detrimental qualities effectively. This capability translates into enhanced job performance ratings from supervisors.

Key insights from the study include:

  • The model suggests that individuals with dark personality traits develop a heightened political skill, leveraging it to conceal their negative attributes and advance their careers.
  • Work environments that are highly competitive and entrepreneurial may inadvertently foster manipulative behaviors, a characteristic commonly associated with dark personality traits.

The intersection of individual personality traits, organizational culture, and structural dynamics plays a crucial role in facilitating the ascent of individuals with dark personality traits and toxic leadership styles. For a deeper exploration of toxic work cultures and the nature of dark personalities, my book Toxic Bosses provides an extensive analysis.



Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others