Narcissism: excessive admiration of oneself.
Psychopathy: a mental disorder marked by egocentric and antisocial behavior.
Machiavellianism: rooted in the political theory of 16th century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, who pioneered the idea that achieving a desired end result is justified by any means necessary—no matter how unscrupulous the path may be.
Together, these personality traits are known as the “dark triad,” a sinister set of behavioral leanings often observed in people characterized as “callous,” “manipulative,” “malevolent,” or otherwise “notably offensive.”
And according to a new study from a quartet of U.S. universities, published in the Journal of Marketing, the dark triad makes for a darn good salesperson—or “conniving snake,” in the American vernacular.
“Salespeople score higher on these dark traits than all other professions,” the study notes, “except for CEOs, lawyers, and celebrities.”
To anyone familiar with the rampant verbal abuse of the real estate hawks in Glengarry Glen Ross (“Coffee’s for closers!“), it probably comes as no surprise that the sales industry is brimming over with darkness, although it may be less obvious when you think of the jolly Girl Scout Brownie troop peddling cookies on your doorstep. In fact, most academic research on sales teams focuses on positive traits, such as self-motivation, adaptiveness, and extraversion. But as the new study notes, the importance of the negative traits cannot be ignored.
That doesn’t mean the bad guys come out on top: The study’s findings also caveat the success of dark triad personalities in the long term. In the short term, dark salespeople can mask the dysfunctional aspects of their personalities (such as callous self-interest) with more functional ones (such as charisma), thus getting hired at firms that would hardly seek out a “cutthroat colleague.” Or they might even rapidly scale the corporate ladder by trampling on those around them.
But narcissism and psychopathy often result in a “fall from grace,” the study writes. The antagonistic behaviors associated with the dark triad can ultimately undermine relationships with coworkers, and diminish social capital, thus collapsing their sales performance. This happens more quickly in businesses where corporate culture is better structured to unmask dark personalities, versus in workplaces that obscure the misdeeds of a dark salesperson.
However, while the narcissistic and psychopathic often get their comeuppance, the same does not hold true for the Machiavellian—who might actually soar in the long term, the study suggests. And while the reasoning behind this is unclear, Machiavellian types have been known to, for example, cut corners at work to great effect.
The bottom line? The sales world cannot be blind to the dark triad, the study writes. At least, not if it wants to weed out the rotten apples—because who wants to buy those?