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SALES MANAGEMENT

How to recognise the performance effects of ‘dark’ salesperson traits

By our News Team | 2022

Researchers say managers should be trained to be mindful of the performance patterns that may signal a salesperson’s ‘dark’ personality.

Academic researchers have published a new paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Marketing that examines the effect among salespeople of three negative personality traits – Machiavellianism (amoral behaviour), narcissism (self-admiration) and psychopathy (egocentric and antisocial personality).

The study was carried out by researchers from four US universities: University of New Hampshire, University of Kentucky, Texas A&M University, and Florida State University.

Sales Management

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Navigator via Pexels

Ads for sales jobs usually emphasise a preference for positive personality traits such as self-motivation, ability to be a team player, ethical behaviour and enthusiasm. Academic research has also traditionally focused on positive performance drivers such as adaptiveness, conscientiousness, openness and extraversion (gratification obtained from outside the self).

“While hiring people with these traits is desirable, it ignores the importance among salespeople of [the] three negative traits of Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy – collectively known as the dark triad (DT),” says Alexis Allen, one of the paper’s co-authors.

Except for CEOs, lawyers and celebrities, salespeople score higher on these dark traits than all other professions, which has led to sales professionals often being characterised as conniving.

That these dark personalities are often employed by sales organisations suggests that some salespeople are able to mask the dysfunctional manifestations of DT traits – such as callous self-interest – with more functional ones such as charisma, during the recruitment process.

According to the research, DT traits can offer significant advantages for some salespeople to get ahead. But there are downsides in the long run, too. Over time, the self-interested, antagonistic behaviours associated with DT traits are likely to undermine their relationships with colleagues, diminish their social capital and subsequently reduce their performance in the sales environment.

Why dark salespeople may persevere and thrive

The researchers conducted two studies to explore how and why dark salespeople persevere, and even thrive, in organisations. They investigated: (1.) how dark salespeople perform over time relative to their low-DT peers and (2.) how ambient social structures, such as organisational social networks into which salespeople are embedded, influence these salespeople’s performance.

The first study provides empirical evidence that narcissism and psychopathy allow dark salespeople to succeed in the short term, but eventually lead to a ‘fall from grace’, including diminished sales performance. In contrast, results show that Machiavellianism produces little in the short term, but manifests in long-term performance benefits.

The second study measures the reach efficiency of the dark personality’s social network. When a person’s network exhibits high-reach efficiency, information about their actions becomes socially visible to others (i.e., friends of friends) who are indirectly connected to the dark personality. 

Low-reach efficiency, however, impedes the spread of information and delays the social visibility of individual actions. 

Co-author Cinthia B. Satornino explains that: “If the network structure obscures information regarding the misdeeds of a dark salesperson, it enhances the probability for performance-enhancing cooperation between the dark personality and his or her unsuspecting peers.”

Results show that narcissism and psychopathy influence performance similarly, while Machiavellianism has the inverse effect. When reach efficiency is high, narcissism and psychopathy lead to decreased sales performance in subsequent periods. 

On the other hand, those with Machiavellianism benefit from high-reach efficiency, which results in enhanced sales performance in subsequent periods.

The research team therefore offers three key recommendations for chief sales officers:

  • Recruitment managers should be trained specifically to recognise signs of DT traits in the interview process using tools such as behavioural questions that highlight past or potential behaviours and characteristics typical of dark personalities.
  • Sales managers should be trained to be cognisant of the performance patterns that may signal a dark personality, to determine if interventions are needed.
  • Sales managers should leverage social networks and peer feedback to facilitate the unmasking of dark personalities.

Find out more about the research paper here.



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