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How Personality Traits Affect Sales: When Salespersons Go “Dark”

Salespeople tend to score highly on Dark Triad traits of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. Salespeople with these traits tend to engage in socially transgressive behaviours. Their performance also tends to be initially high and then fall rapidly. To avoid social and performance impacts on the firm and with customers, hiring managers should be trained to identify these traits during interviews. And sales managers should be trained to identify them from sales performance and peer interactions.



It may come as no surprise to a lot of us that CEOs, lawyers, and celebrities score the highest on Dark Triad (DT) traits amongst all professions. And right behind these are salespeople.

The Dark Triad refers to the three negative qualities of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. And despite this being well known, when hiring salespeople, firms look for positive traits like enthusiasm, ethics, or self-motivation. Even research into traits affecting sales performance is mostly focused on positive traits. The impact of DT traits on sales performance goes unexplored. So, a study tries to answer the question: How do Dark Triad traits affect the performance of salespeople?


This post talks about empathy and quiet ego as salesperson traits, which are the inverse of the DT traits. To understand how these traits impact sales performance, click here.


Psychopaths lack empathy and exploit others to get to their goals. They can come across as engaging but are revealed by their need to dominate. They also tend to engage in severe social transgressions, though not very conspicuously. Narcissists are social exhibitionists with high risk taking and self-aggrandisement. They can be mistaken as charming or charismatic, but their exhibitionism reveals their antisocial nature. Machiavellians consider manipulation as a justified means to attain goals, and show ethically questionable behaviour. However, they do not engage in overtly antisocial behaviour. Unlike psychopaths and narcissists, they are patient and strategic.



The study found that the three DT traits affect sales performance differently over time. While psychopaths and narcissists show high sales growth in the short term, their sale performance declines in the long term. There is a slight difference between the two traits in the acuteness of the impact. The fall in performance is steeper in psychopaths, with a decrease of 90% in sales performance in the long term. The trend is reversed for Machiavellians, who show slow growth to begin with but get high sales performance over a longer period.


The study also found is a link between organisational social networks and sales performance

of those with DT traits. The social visibility and the speed at which information about their actions spreads within the social network impacts their sales performance in different ways. Psychopaths and narcissists thrive when visibility is low and information dissemination is slow, but their performance declines as visibility increases. Again, the impact is more severe for psychopaths. Machiavellians, on the other hand, have no problem in doing well even with high social visibility and fast spread of information.



It is likely that salespeople with DT traits can hide them under more positive traits like charisma or charm during hiring. They are also able to thrive in environments where social

transgressions go unnoticed. Further, they probably take advantage of peer cooperation to improve performance when their DT traits go unnoticed by colleagues. With time and spread of information, their peers become aware of their dark traits and withdraw from social relationships with them, which leads to a fall in performance. Since Machiavellians are the least demonstrative and most patient of the three types, they don’t face the same problem as psychopaths and narcissists.


The study has three key implications for managers and organisations. First, hiring managers

should be trained to recognise candidates with DT traits, especially if the firm wants to take a stand against hiring such salespeople. It is difficult to identify these traits as those with DT traits are good at masking them, but asking behavioural questions pertaining to these traits can be informative. If they can recognise DT traits during hiring, they will be able to avoid the social and performance issues these salespeople bring down the line.



Sales managers can also be trained to recognise performance patterns that indicate a salesperson with DT traits. As the study found, their initial performance is higher than average but falls within a year. Investigating such variable performances can help sales managers uncover salespeople with DT traits and avoid damage to customer relationships in the future.


Sales managers can also note the interactions among team members. Typically, those with

DT traits alienate their peers sooner or later. Any salesperson whose colleagues seem to have all withdrawn from them might have dysfunctional traits. Peers would be able to recognise these traits sooner because of more frequent interactions. So, any concerns raised by members of the sales team should be taken seriously by sales managers, even if their own impression is different. It could be difficult to keep track of informal communication networks so that firms can encourage prosocial organizational gossip. It will increase social visibility and spread information faster, and uncover dysfunctional personalities.


The DT traits also affect customer behaviour. Find out how and what you can do about it.

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