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Why You Need to Understand Your Dark Side

Knowing your ‘dark side’ traits won’t turn you into Hannibal Lector or Darth Vader, but you do need to know what they are to progress in your career. Here’s why.

Knowing your ‘dark side’ traits won’t turn you into Hannibal Lector or Darth Vader, but you do need to know what they are to progress in your career. Here’s why.

By Gaëlle Pritchard, Head of Assessment, SH Leadership and Sue Colton, Associate Business Psychologist

Back in those long-ago pre-pandemic days when dinner parties were more common, how did people react when you told them what you did for a living? For us as assessors, people would typically say something like: “Oh, I bet you get to look inside people’s heads and know all their dark secrets…”

This was usually accompanied with a hopeful look. Sometimes followed by disappointment when we had to tell them it’s not quite like that. And then, to keep the conversation going, we would often add: “But we do get to assess people’s dark sides…”

What are dark side traits and why are they important?

The term ‘dark side traits’ refers to a set of behaviours that people exhibit in the workplace that we would more neutrally refer to as potential disruptive or derailing behaviours. Specifically, the ability to measure these traits has been claimed by the Hogan Development Survey (HDS).  Although other tools assess similar attributes and can unearth where overplayed strengths become weaknesses, Hogan describes its psychometric instrument as “the only personality assessment that identifies the dark side.”

As to why it’s important to understand these traits, the answer is fairly straightforward. According to one official definition:

“The HDS is about identifying behaviours that disrupt or interfere with effective performance in the normal working environment or in normal behaviour.”

These are traits than can stop people from working effectively which, as you’ll appreciate, is particularly important to understand in the context of senior leadership roles and teams. None of these traits is inherently negative, but they are important to understand so individuals know what can trigger them.

There are 11 traits assessed as part of the Hogan Development Survey, such as Imaginative, Excitable, and Sceptical. Most people will have an ‘elevated’ or ‘high’ score on two or three of those traits. We then assess the results of the HDS in the context of the competencies required for a role. For client organisations, this is helpful to better understand how well a senior leadership candidate fits a role they’re seeking to fill.

Certain traits can be positive for some roles and bad for others   

Using the HDS, say someone scores high in Imaginative and Excitable, for example. That might make them a great fit for a role at a creative agency, but not such a good fit for a Finance role. (These are off-the-cuff interpretations based on stereotypical views of such roles just to illustrate the point that scoring high in certain traits can be positive, depending on the role. In reality, the competencies of specific roles are often more nuanced than this.)

Scoring highly in Sceptical, similarly, would likely be great for someone in a role that involves a lot of high-pressure negotiation. The definition of this trait is “cynical, distrustful and doubtful of others’ true intentions”. So, under pressure this person might be mistrustful and quarrelsome. On the other hand, it also means they will be hard to fool and good at navigating office politics.

It can also be a very positive trait for senior leaders to possess, since it often means they are aware of issues and good at challenging the status quo. Those who are low Sceptical may accept things at face value too readily or make light of due diligence processes.

If an individual scores high in Excitable, they might become emotionally volatile under pressure. However, this person is also likely to come across as passionate and enthusiastic and may be very good at motivating people and boosting productivity. In short, there are benefits to possessing at least some of the attributes of every trait assessed by the HDS.

Interpretation is vital to understanding these traits

This is also why interpretation and context are so important. For one thing, the Hogan model contains three tools, not just the HDS we’ve been discussing. When using the Hogan model for assessment, we use all three tools to get a fully rounded picture of an individual’s behaviours. The HDS we’ve been discussing is only the second of these. The first is the Personality Inventory (HPI) and assesses an individual’s normative personality – how they act day to day. The other is the Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (MVPI), which examines someone’s core motivation, values, drives, and interests.

We can see just how important interpretation is from a recent example where we were assessing two candidates for a senior role. One candidate scored high in Bold and Mischievous, meaning they could be an overly confident, impulsive, potentially devious and risk-hungry person. However, they also scored high in Diligent and Dutiful, which is a very unusual combination in our experience.

You could even say these traits counteract each other. The lesson from this is that we get all the data from across all three Hogan assessments and then we delve more deeply into it. Results like these raise questions and it’s our job to validate and explain them, as well as to understand what is driving these traits. We also look at how unusual combinations are likely to manifest themselves in daily working life against the context of the job.

Assessment is about gaining a balanced view of an individual’s behaviours, as well as interpreting them in the context of a given role. This is important because assessment is not binary or black and white. The HDS – or dark sides – survey can uncover traits that are actually positive for certain roles, as mentioned above. Or, if the scores are particularly high, they can suggest areas where it is important to develop personal development plans to help mitigate against potential derailers or trigger factors.

For the individual being assessed, this is usually incredibly helpful for their personal development. It’s not unheard of for individuals to get the results of their assessment and decide that the role they’re aiming for is not right for them after all. This saves them months of anxiety that would come with trying to fit into a role or organisation where they’re not a natural fit. It also saves the organisation wasted time, effort and money hiring someone who underperforms and then having to rehire for the same role.

How do team dynamics factor in?

One last point to consider is that, in an ideal world, when using assessment for recruiting senior talent, we would first also conduct identical assessments on all the members of the team that individual might be about to join. That’s because when we talk about context, the competencies of a given role is just one aspect to consider. Others include the contrasting or harmonious behaviours of other senior team members, or the overall culture of the team and the organisation.

Say you have a senior team where several members are opinionated and argumentative. An individual may need to also display these same traits if they are not going to be overwhelmed by the rest of the team. By contrast, the team may benefit more from someone who is more agreeable and reserved in order to balance it out. So it’s about looking at team dynamics and cultural fit.

It’s not unusual as part of an assessment to find that the candidate’s results could make them a good fit for the competencies of a role, but a bad fit for the team or its prevailing culture. This is one reason why assessing senior teams at the same time works so well as part of the assessment process. Or why it can be particularly effective when an organisation wants to put together a new team. Behaviours matter – often more than the technical skills required of a given role. The more data you have on a team’s collective behaviours, the more effective assessment is likely to be.

Knowing your derailers can really boost your career

So there you have it. Key reasons why senior talent will benefit from gaining the knowledge of their potential derailers. It can show them where they need to work on personal development. It can tell them how good of a fit they will be for a given role when under pressure and it can give them a sense of the prevailing team dynamics.  

For organisations, it adds another layer of safety when hiring for key senior roles, as well as offering a wide range of benefits in terms of developing a culture or seeing what behaviours they may be missing in their C-suite team.

It’s worth noting that, while there are other models and tools besides Hogan that can assess for potential derailers, Hogan is the one we prefer due to its approach. It is also the tool that coined the phrase ‘dark side’ to describe these traits. That’s why we’ve delved so deeply into the Hogan approach for this article.