Toxic people: that is why they are so successful despite their character


In our own circle of friends we have power over who we let into our lives. It’s not that easy at work – when we meet a toxic person there, we rarely have a choice.

Everyone has likely come across a toxic personality in the course of their life: they steal energy, behave unfairly and are not afraid to adjust the truth so that it fits into their own narrative.

If we all know such people and have an aversion to them, why do they keep making brilliant careers? Mareike Kholin and Bastian Kückelhaus from the Institute for Psychology at the University of Bonn got to the bottom of this question.

Social skills can offset toxic traits

As part of their study, which was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, the psychologists interviewed various work teams. First of all, the participants were asked to assess themselves in an anonymous online survey, including characteristics such as “honesty” and “modesty” – traits for which toxic persons only achieve low values ​​in personality tests.

It was then their colleagues ‘turn to assess the participants’ social skills. The supervisor assessed the work performance of the individual participants. In total, the scientists were able to collect data from 203 such combinations of employees, colleagues and superiors.

The psychologists drew the following conclusion from their results: Workers with low values ​​for honesty and modesty can certainly make progress in their jobs if they compensate for the toxic parts of their personality with social skills.

Superiors rate socially skilled personalities as more hardworking

The toxic personalities, who were considered socially adept by their colleagues, were rated by their superiors as more diligent and occupied a higher hierarchical position.

“Tricks, camouflage and deception are part of the dark side of social competence,” said the psychologist Kückelhaus in a press release by the Science Information Service. One has to get used to the idea that social skill can be a double-edged sword, Kholin added.

But there is also good news for honest and humble personalities: These positive traits offset less developed social skills. Employees with these traits also give their team a lot of joy by treating them fairly and ascribing their successes not only to themselves, but also to their colleagues.

Also read: If your boss is a narcissist, there is only one way to protect you, says an industrial psychologist

The opposite is true for toxic people. Even a single toxic employee or boss can poison the working atmosphere of the team, as a 2015 study by the University of Florida showed. The respondents surveyed said the more rude behavior from their coworkers or supervisors were, the more likely they were to behave rudely at work.

This is what companies can do to slow the rise of toxic people

Business psychologist Gerhard Blickle recommends looking more at the actual performance when selecting personnel and when making assessments – and less at the good impression. In this way, the rise of toxic personalities could be decelerated.

The difficulty: Especially in professions such as sales, in which it is important to impress, it is difficult to distinguish between deception and performance. “It makes sense, for example, to also look at the sickness rate and the termination rate of employees or customer loyalty,” says Blickle.

A book could also help to identify toxic people straight away: “The Laws of Human Nature” by the American author Robert Greene. In it, he identifies the different types of toxic people and how you can recognize them. Here you are:

10 Types of Toxic People Better to Avoid in the Office

This article was published by in March 2020. It has now been reviewed and updated.


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