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Toxic Personality and Success

March 2020 - Defined as a term used to describe people who are greedy, lack modesty, act unfairly and are not too concerned with the truth, a 'toxic personality' would not seem to be something that leads to success in life. However, research at the Department of Psychology, University of Bonn suggests otherwise.

According to Dr. Mareike Kholin, Bastian Kückelhaus and Prof. Dr. Gerhard Blickle people with toxic personalities can still have successful careers. The key lies with their social skills.

While social skills are generally positive attribues in the workplace, they 'can also be used to deceive others, abuse trust or construct a façade of harmlessness beyond which actually lurks deceitfulness' they state in a paper in Personality and Individual Differences. Dr. Mareike Kholin and the research team argue that people with toxic personalities considered to be socially adept by colleagues were thought to be more capable by superiors and occupied higher hierarchical positions.

The Bonn psychologists investigated 231 "trios" of employees, colleagues and superiors to shed some light on the phenomenon:

  • Employees filled in an anonymous online survey, assessing themselves on characteristics such as "honesty" and "modesty".
  • Colleagues gave information on each participant's social skills.
  • Participant's supervisors provided an appraisal of their employees work performance.

They found that employees with low values of honesty and modesty can still have successful careers if they balance toxic parts of their personality with social skills.

Dr Kholin commented:

"We have to get used to the idea that social skills can be a double-edged sword.".

Bastian Kückelhaus summarises:

"Trickery, disguise and deception are the dark side of social skills."

Low values of "honesty" and "modesty"

Characteristically, "toxic" persons have low scores for "honesty" and "modesty" in personality tests.

Prof. Blickle said:

"Such personalities tend to focus on themselves all the time.Good social skills enable them to deceive others."

Conversely, employees who are distinctly honest and modest are seen as a real joy for their team: They behave fairly and allow their colleagues to share in their successes.

Assessing toxic personalities more accurately?

How should organizations and work teams act on these findings? Prof. Blickle advised:

"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. This is particularly difficult in activities where it is important to impress and arouse interest, such as in sales or leadership positions. Here, it makes sense for instance to also look at the sickness and notice rate of employees, or customer loyalty.


Kholin, M., Kückelhaus, B., & Blickle, G.: Why Dark Personalities can Get Ahead: Extending the Toxic Career Model, Personality and Individual Differences, DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2019.109792

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