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Don’t underestimate the power of the dark side: Why leaders fail

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The results of a new 10-year study into leadership reveal the full extent of the UK's exposure to the risk of the 'dark side'. So where are the leaders going wrong - and how are generational differences shaping leadership characteristics?

New research based on 18,000 assessments shows that 85% of UK’s leaders demonstrate ‘dark side’ characteristics. These deeply rooted, self-destructive aspects of a personality contribute to the alarming derailment rate amongst leaders and top management.

This substantial sample size provides a unique insight into the make-up of UK senior management. The report, ‘A Decade of the Dark Side’ published this week by Psychological Consultancy Ltd (PCL), was conducted over ten years drawing on data collected between 1999 and 2009 using the Hogan Development Survey (HDS), the only psychometric test based on proven leadership derailers.

All of these ‘dark side’ characteristics serve to undermine the loyalty and commitment of others and negatively impact the influence of leaders.

UK managers

Only 15% of the sample show no ‘dark side’ characteristics at all, while 26% (4,800) have three or more dark side characteristics on display.“At work these tendencies can break through in times of stress (when the pressure gets to us) or times of success (when we feel full of ourselves and indestructible)”, says managing director of PCL Geoff Trickey.

The study suggests that the greatest risk factor for more than a quarter of managers is that they are so dutiful, compliant and appeasing that they are likely to have difficulty ‘speaking truth to power’ or in making independent decisions.

Another quarter is too aloof, detached and socially awkward to be effective in dealing with ‘people’ issues. And a further quarter are charming and persuasive, but to such an extent that they are easily seen as manipulative, calculating and disingenuous.

The Y Generation enters the work arena

By contrasting three consecutive generations, PCL is able to show striking differences across the UK workforce: Generation X (born 1962 - 1981) and Y (born 1982 - 2001) with the now aging Baby Boomers (born 1943 - 1960). Generation Y, has been caricatured by the media as over-indulged by parents and by our ‘everyone shall have prizes’ society.

Criticised as a generation that only takes YES for an answer, it is deemed unprepared for the realities of working life. This research shows that Generation Y are less sure of themselves, more self-critical, mistrustful and more self-conscious than previous generations. They are described as reluctant to make independent decisions, assume responsibility or adequately confront the status quo.

In a number of ways, they do appear less mature than previous generations as they enter the work force. With a higher incidence of socially skilled, talkative individuals, the perky and effervescent Generation X are likely to be on a charm offensive. But they will be viewed as superficial and manipulative if they fail to reign in the potentially ‘dark side’ excesses of these behaviours.

Although Baby Boomers seem less mistrustful and more comfortable in their own skin, the ‘dark side’ risks for them is that they are too independent minded and less concerned about pleasing others all the time. In extreme cases Baby Boomers will be task focused rather and have a waning interest in other people.

“This is a pageant of the techies, the charmers, and the grumpy oldies. The salvation for Generation Y is likely to lie in their superior technical skills, fostered by computer games, ipods, the internet," argues Geoff Trickey. "This could well assist them in finding a new orthodoxy in which their idealistic expectations combine with the technical possibilities to create a whole new work-life ethic.”

Cultural contrasts between public and private sector employees

The report compares data from public and private sector employees and shows contrasting ‘dark side’ personality traits, with their associated risk factors. The ‘dark side’ of the public sector is associated with lower resilience, less predictability of mood and a greater tendency to take things personally.

Employees will more often seem distant, less interested in others, and less flexible. The problems for private sector employees reflect a tendency to be more egotistic and self-important. Either stress or personal success may turn this to arrogance and an unwilling to listen to restraint or advice.

“It’s all too easy for arm chair strategists to propose that the public services should ape the private sector, but there are significant differences in the prevailing character traits of employees from the two sectors,” says Geoff Trickey. “These differences are deeply rooted and reflect a public service culture and management style suited to a less centralised past. They will have a bearing on the challenges faced by the public sector as it is encouraged to emulate the private sector ethos, and on individuals who move between sectors, as well as having important implications for change management.”

Geoff Trickey is MD at Psychological Consultancy Ltd. ‘A Decade of the Dark Side: the Dark Side’ is published on the 17th September 2009. To request a copy of the report please contact Sian Killick at [email protected].

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