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Psychologists have finally figured out why your toxic colleagues climb to the top at work

Two words: social skills.

Psychologists have finally figured out why your toxic colleagues climb to the top at work
[Photo: Joshua Ness/Unsplash]
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Got a toxic coworker? You’re not alone: Google lists 231 million pages on the topic.

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Now researchers from the University of Bonn have finally asked humanity’s burning question: How the hell do workers noted for their greed, unfairness, immodesty, and untruths succeed? They studied 203 employee-colleague-supervisor trios, gathering their self-appraisals and coworker evaluations.

The success of toxic people is so common that there’s a phrase for it: the “toxic career model.” It goes like this: A toxic employee schmoozes and charms and politicks, which results in high job performance reviews from superiors. (Peers, meanwhile, often know the ugly truth.) All success revolves around social skills. And because the same socializing that can foster strong, healthy work relationships can also be used to deceive others, toxic colleagues are able to use their social skills for their own gain.

“Trickery, disguise and deception are the dark side of social skills,” said study coauthor Gerhard  Blickle, a psychologist at the University of Bonn, in a statement.

In psychological terms, toxic personalities are characterized by low honesty and low modesty. “Such personalities tend to focus on themselves all the time,” says Blickle, who calls toxic people “dark personalities.”

The researchers suggest that you too can help stop toxic career climbs (!). If you’re a manager, the trick is to pay attention to team performance (not just task performance), and to separate job performance from good impressions, particularly in jobs that involve attracting attention and interest, such as leadership and sales, where toxic personalities can thrive.