In 1992, Robert Hogan identified 11 dark side characteristics, including being bold, mischievous, leisurely, colorful and reserved (Figure 1). According to research conducted in the 1980s by organizational psychologists, one reason that otherwise successful and talented leaders fail is because of the prevalence of their dark side characteristics. However, new research by Hogan’s eponymous personality assessment company found that these characteristics can be recognized and even leveraged in the workplace.
Hogan Assessments CEO Scott Gregory calls the set of 11 personality characteristics “dark side derailers.” These characteristics, according to the research, can get managers in trouble by impeding their ability to build and sustain teams, engage people, communicate effectively and manage performance.
There are clusters of characteristics that tend to go together, but Gregory said in general, people can have strong characteristics in a variety of categories that can contribute positively to outcomes in some roles or settings. However, those same characteristics can become particularly problematic when people are stressed or feeling pressured or simply when their guard is down and they are not self-monitoring like they usually would.
Zsolt Feher, managing director at Hogan Assessments Europe, said that while these dark side characteristics can appear in everyone, they are most visible in leaders. “Obviously everybody’s looking at the leader and if that leader is behaving in a different way, that’s going to be visible and quite disruptive for the organization,” he said.
Dark vs. Bright
Gregory said he often sees a key upside to each derailer that is linked to the requirements of certain roles. For example, highly diligent people are often quality oriented, thorough, precise and produce detailed and highly accurate work. Their work may be slow and not suited for roles such as a social worker or nanny but more suited for roles such as an attorney or accountant.
Gregory pointed to an experienced successful attorney in a large global corporation who scored high on the diligence scale. Leaders with this derailer often have difficulty letting go, delegating and changing rapidly as circumstances change, Gregory said. He said the high diligence of this attorney, on the one hand, helped keep his corporation from violating international trade regulations, which are complex, detailed and constantly changing. “He was exceptionally thorough and up to date on trade regulations,” Gregory said. “He had installed a strong compliance process that allowed few mistakes to slip through the cracks at his organization.”
On the other hand, Gregory said the attorney tended to annoy his coworkers. “When they needed a strategic answer from him — rather than a 10-page analysis — or when policies needed to change quickly, his attention to detail slowed down that process,” Gregory said.
On the bold scale, high scorers are often described by others — particularly their teams if they are leaders — as seeming arrogant, self-focused and unreasonably demanding, especially when they’re under pressure or stressed out, Gregory said. However, in one research study on stock traders, high bold scores predicted success in that role. “In this case, if an individual wasn’t highly competent, very decisive, or willing to make bold demands and take bold actions, he or she wasn’t as successful as those who showed more constraint,” he said. Particularly for leaders, though, Gregory said the downside often outweighs the positive because the derailers get in the way of engaging the team and helping others to be successful.
Know Your Weaknesses
Gregory said the most important way learning leaders can help with these dark side characteristics is to help leaders understand that how they think about themselves is not important — rather, the importance is how other people view them.
“From our perspective, personality and reputation are the same thing,” Gregory said. “It’s about how these things impact other people, not whether I think my high-bold is a great quality because it makes me confident. It’s about if others see me as being unrealistically demanding or arrogant.”
Gregory said step one for CLOs is finding a way to get that kind of reputation feedback in a leader’s hands. Step two is helping leaders become aware of their dark side characteristics. “You need some organized measure to do that, but the focus on these dark side characteristics can be built into almost any L&D effort,” Gregory said. “I have worked with executive education organizations to build feedback into experiential learning or action learning projects, which can be particularly valuable.”
Erica Desrosiers, head of accelerated development at Johnson & Johnson, has used the Hogan assessment for nearly 20 years in her talent roles at PepsiCo, Walmart and now Johnson & Johnson. She said it’s not the kind of tool to be used on the entire workforce. Rather, she has always used it specifically for leadership development. “It’s a really useful tool to help leaders enhance their self-awareness and to understand where they might need to modify their behavior to be more effective as leaders.”
Desrosiers said for self-aware leaders, the assessment usually confirms what they already know about themselves and sometimes helps explain it. But for others it can be an aha moment. “It’s been this kind of enlightening, valuable set of insights that really helps them understand themselves in a way they haven’t reflected on before,” she said. “The feedback typically resonates a lot.”
State Farm Insurance CLO Carra Simmons said self-awareness is a huge component to helping leaders reach their full potential. “No one is ever done developing themselves, no matter what level you achieve,” she said. “It’s really knowing innately naturally what I’m good at and what skill sets do I have.”
She said she sees an enormous value in taking personality assessments to inform people who they are, how they are wired, how they work best with others and how their tendencies impact others to bring out the best work in others and in themselves simultaneously.
She also said it’s great if individuals can be matched into roles for their strengths, but part of development is moving people into different roles. “It’s not like it’s a one-and-done,” she said. “We may have a good match for you based upon your strength, but people don’t want to stay there forever. So how do we continue to improve and move that needle?”
Once You Know Them, Don’t Ignore Them
Strengths-based leadership and management styles are a growing trend, such as motivational speaker Marcus Buckingham’s popular approach that focuses on what people are good at and encourages people to “work around weaknesses” because other people on the team will supposedly have strengths to counter those weaknesses.
But Simmons said people cannot ignore their weaknesses or developmental opportunities. She said it’s rare to find a team that has perfectly compatible strengths and weaknesses. “There’s always a changing team dynamic; somebody leaves, somebody new is brought on, you shrink your team,” she said. “I don’t think you ever have that perfect harmonious balance.”
Damodar Padhi, vice president and global head of talent development at Tata Consultancy Services, said most average people focus on developing strengths rather than eliminating weaknesses. “It is fun, less risky and instantly gratifying,” Padhi said. “Fixing weaknesses, on the other hand, is not so easy, could be frustrating [and the] reward may be elusive.”
But Padhi said people can only go so far if they focus solely on strengths and turn a blind eye toward weaknesses. “Eventually our weaknesses will act as brake pads in our growth,” he said. “At the same time, we know focusing too much on weaknesses can be quite time consuming and draining.”
Padhi said average people try to build on their strengths, but successful people will always keep a limited number of weaknesses to be sharpened as well.
Desrosiers agreed that weaknesses can’t always be ignored. “Some weaknesses will derail you from what could otherwise have been a very successful path,” she said.
Build Awareness, Give Feedback
Simmons said ideally leaders have a coach to help them understand the results of any personality assessment. “People can put their own spin on it and some people are very self-critical and can get stuck in some of that,” she said. “So you really must have a quality coach that knows the assessment and can realistically help someone through that.”
That’s what happens at Johnson & Johnson. Desrosiers said they train coaches to interpret the assessment and be able to give feedback on it. “In the full report there are dozens of scales and subscales, so it’s hard to make sense of that by yourself,” she said. “But when you sit down with the trained facilitator or coach who walks you through it and can explain all the nuances, it helps bring the insights to life.”
Once the awareness is there and leaders know what they need to work on, it becomes a matter of creating the conditions for development to occur. “I have to be able to think about some alternative behaviors and have a chance to try them out,” Gregory said. “And then I have to be able to get feedback from other people about them.”
Hogan Europe’s Feher added that CLOs should encourage leaders to ask their co-workers for feedback as well and be open to constructive criticism. “We can change your behavior, but we cannot change your personality,” he said.
Desrosiers said after the awareness is there, the next steps depend on the leader, the leader’s goals and the specifics of the situation. “It could go anywhere from sitting with them through the creation of a development plan to leveraging the results through a one-on-one executive coaching engagement,” she said.
Gregory noted that some derailers make it more difficult for people to absorb feedback. “High-bold scorers are often unwilling to listen to others’ council and can be enormously difficult to provide feedback to because they really believe they’re better than you,” Gregory said. “If they’re better than you, why would they ever want to listen to your feedback?” On the other hand, a highly dutiful person is often overly willing to agree with the boss and the feedback, Gregory said.
Simmons has seen those who fight the feedback and won’t change and those who embrace the feedback like a sponge and are willing to do all that they can to improve themselves. “We love it when people seek the feedback, take it to heart and work on it,” she said. “It’s a moment of pride when you see them really having evolved from listening to the feedback.”
Gregory said informal mentoring and coaching, especially in a moment-to-moment, on-the-job way, can be especially powerful in identifying and fixing dark side characteristics. Gregory often recommends that leaders ask their spouses or significant others to describe them when they are at their worst. “It is a really good strategy because we typically are not very self-monitoring and our guard is almost always down when we are around our loved ones,” Gregory said. “As a result, they see these dark side behaviors much more clearly and readily then people at work typically do.”
At work, if an individual can find someone who sees them in action and who will give them open and honest feedback, that is a gift, Simmons said. “But what’s key to that is you have to want to hear it,” she said. “If you don’t want to hear it, if you’re not ready to hear it, I’m not sure you’re on the right journey here.”
Simmons said to truly grow and change less-desirable traits, it takes a lot of time and intentionality. “The busier people get, no matter how much development we provide, people often slip back or default into their natural tendencies,” she said. “They know they shouldn’t be doing these things that they’ve been coached on, but under stress, people default to where they started from. And if we can stop that, that really is key.”
Gregory said since these derailers are so stable in adults, even if awareness is built and alternative habits are produced, the dark side will never truly go away. “L&D shouldn’t be in the business of trying to fix them, but should be in the business of trying to help people become more aware and more capable of managing them,” he said.