This is the reason why toxic people can be so successful professionally


Since infancy, we’ve all been taught time and time again by parents, teachers, and society as a whole to act kindly towards others. How does the old saying go? Treat others as you would want to be treated. It’s an idealistic notion, however, and by the time most of us have graduated from the classroom to the boardroom that adage isn’t exactly at the forefront of our minds.

The corporate world can be unforgiving, and sometimes it feels like the people in positions of power aren’t exactly the “good guys.” Now, a new study conducted at Bonn University has delved into why certain toxic, selfish people are still able to succeed professionally. 

In some cases, greedy, immoral people who don’t value honesty all that much also just so happen to have strong social skills. They then use these social skills to deceive and manipulate coworkers and superiors alike. Many deceitful individuals will use their social skills to portray themselves as harmless and trustworthy, all so they can push their underlying personal agenda more innocently.

Furthermore, toxic and self-centered employees will take every opportunity to place themselves in the best light possible, even if it comes at the unfair expense of others. Legitimately honest and fair workers, on the other hand, are much more likely to share their successes with co-workers; a noble deed, no doubt, but sharing credit with others isn’t exactly the best way to get a promotion.

Social skills, in general, aren’t a bad attribute or sign that someone is a bad person. We all need a certain level of social skill to make friends at the office, deal with stress, and connect with people in a meaningful way. It’s the combination of strong social skills and an aptitude for lying that helps many toxic individuals climb the corporate ranks within their companies.

This can also have a trickle-down effect on other employees. If a lower-level worker recognizes that his manager is acting deceitfully towards another worker, it’s only natural that he or she will internalize that behavior and start mimicking it in hopes of progressing their career.

“We have to get used to the idea that social skills can be a double-edged sword,” comments study leader Dr. Mareike Kholin in a press release.

In a series of personality tests conducted for this study, individuals who scored particularly low in honesty and modesty categories were classified as “toxic.” 

“Such personalities tend to focus on themselves all the time,” explains study co-author Prof. Dr. Gerhard Blickle. “Good social skills enable them to deceive others.”

To investigate different personalities in the workplace, the study’s authors conducted a layered experiment involving 203 employees. First, each participant filled out an anonymous survey that asked them to self-rate various aspects of their personality like honesty and modesty. Then, a colleague of each participant was asked to assess that person’s social skills. Finally, participants’ managers also chimed in with an overall description of their work performance.

Common sense would dictate that people who described themselves as dishonest and selfish would have a hard time succeeding in their careers. In actuality, though, the results revealed that with the right mix of strong social skills and cunning, both co-workers and managers rated self-described selfish individuals as strong workers and valued team members.

“Trickery, disguise, and deception are the dark side of social skills,” adds co-author Bastian Kückelhaus.

As far as how companies and supervisors can better recognize these office predators hiding in plain sight, the research team has a few suggestions.

“In order to slow down the ascent of toxic personalities, more attention should be paid to actual performance and less to the good impression when selecting staff and making assessments,” Prof. Blickle says.

The moral of this study isn’t that you have to be a dishonest person to succeed in life, but it does document the complexity of human interaction in the workplace. We all want to make the most of our opportunities, make lots of money, etc, and some individuals are more willing to cut corners than others. You don’t have to be deceitful to succeed, but you should be aware that some people in life often have an ulterior motive. 

The full study can be found here, published in Personality and Individual Differences.