Harnessing the Light Triad AND the Dark Triad in Work Culture

Gustavo Grodnitzky Organizational Culture

I learned a lot in while I was in prison – working as a psychologist, that is. I saw there that behavior – even in its extremes – can be influenced by context or culture. And that’s what I still speak and write about today.

Back then, there was a lot of talk about the “dark triad” of personality traits, which psychologists identified many years ago in an effort to understand problematic behaviors. Those traits are:

  1. Narcissism: Excessive interest in or admiration of oneself.
  2. Machiavellianism: Being so focused on your own interests that you will manipulate, deceive and exploit others to achieve your goals.
  3. Sociopathy: Displaying extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.

Researchers have looked at how these behaviors are associated with relationship troubles, incarceration and workplace success.

The Light Triad

More recently, Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist from Columbia University, has identified a “light triad.” Kaufman and his colleagues have done research into three behavioral traits:

  1. Humanism, which he defines as believing in the inherent dignity and worth of other human beings.
  2. Kantianism, derived from the name of philosopher Immanuel Kant, defined as the belief that people should be treated as a means unto themselves
  3. Faith in humanity, defined as the belief that other humans are fundamentally good and not out to get you.

If you’d like to see if your personality is more light or dark, you can take Kaufman’s assessment.

Positive traits associated with a light personality style include curiosity, teamwork, forgiveness, and gratitude. However, there are also some positive traits associated with a dark personality style — specifically, creativity, assertiveness, bravery and leadership.

“But wait, Gustavo!” you might be thinking right now. “All these traits seem pretty kickin’. Can we get them all?”

Of course you can. Create a culture that supports and rewards these traits and behaviors.

Changing Dark Triad Traits

Kaufman describes personality as a combination of habits, thoughts and feelings about how to act in the world — and those thoughts, feelings and habits can be changed.

I would describe personality being a tendency to behave in a certain way. That tendency can be changed based on the context or culture in which we find ourselves. When you change the context a human is in, behavior change follows, regardless of personality. If you take someone who’s very LOUD and BOISTEROUS (that’s their personality) and you walk them into a museum, a church or a bank, what are they likely to do? They’re going to get quiet. This is just one example of how culture trumps personality.

You cannot change someone’s personality against their will. It’s like the old joke:

How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?

It takes only one, but the lightbulb really needs to want to change. 

For an individual’s personality to change, they must choose to change and then push themselves slowly and consistently over time.

Let’s say, for example, an employee comes into your culture with a dark personality style. They believe they need to protect themselves or take advantage of others before they are taken advantage of themselves (a la Machiavelli). They have the capacity to learn that they are in a culture that believes people are good and that they should help and support one another — and that this culture has behavioral rules around those beliefs. But they can learn that only if the culture calls out and corrects their Machiavellian behaviors.

On the very bright side, Kaufman’s research shows we are all capable of both light and dark personality traits, but most people fall on the light side. You can harness the traits of both light and dark personalities for optimal performance and for the benefit of all stakeholders.

I’d love to hear your questions and comments.  If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.

Keep cultivating your culture!