Ask someone for the qualities of a good manager or leader and you’re likely to get a laundry list of attributes — all of them positive character traits.
Good communicator, inspirational, problem solver and cool under pressure are likely to be on anyone’s short list.
But what about those other qualities? Let’s call them the less attractive ones that often are a part of the package that makes up a successful manager.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Business Administration studied the development of leaders over a three-year period and found that negative, or “dark side” personality traits have their place too.
“Mae West told us that when she’s good, she’s good. But when she’s bad, she’s even better,” said Peter Harms, an assistant professor of management and the study’s lead author. “We chose to investigate so-called subclinical or ‘dark side’ traits because we really didn’t know much about how and to what degree they affected performance or development.”
Prior research had established that clearly positive personality qualities — such as extraversion, emotional stability and conscientiousness — had helpful effects on both the performance and the development of leaders.
But researches have never take a close look at the negative elements.
“Was it possible that they might be beneficial in some contexts?” Harms asked. “For some of them, it turns out that the answer was yes.”
The study followed more than 900 officer cadets in their second, third and fourth years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It used the Hogan Development Survey, a comprehensive measurement of traits that can derail managers, to predict changes in a variety of leadership areas that were regularly assessed in developmental reviews at the Academy.
Several of the 12 “dark side” traits — such as those associated with narcissism, being overly dramatic, being critical of others and being extremely focused on complying with rules — actually had a positive effect on a number of facets of the cadets’ leadership development over time, the study found.
Stubbornness is a bad-but-good trait that Marko Salonen sees in his manager.
“It gets things done. She won’t let go. She won’t let go,” he said. “In any other relationship, it would be a bad thing, but at work it’s a good thing.”
“By themselves, these … traits had fairly small effects, but when aggregated, they played a substantial role in determining which cadets developed leadership skills,” Harms said. “Assumptions about how these traits affected performance and development were mistaken …”
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