The Dark-Side of Personality: A Cross-Cultural Perspective

Everyone around the world derails, or shows their dark side, at some point in a career. That is, people from all walks of life inevitably demonstrate behaviors and reactions that end up getting in the way of leadership, relationships, and/or performance at one time or another. But why do self-aware, educated professionals who know their stress-induced conduct is counterproductive act in such ways across the globe?

Freud summed it up with his “life sucks, deal with [your neuroses]” perspective, postulating that the conditioning for our nerve-wracked outlook starts from birth. You never see a newborn come out laughing, do you? It’s cold, it’s bright, it’s foreign; and Sigmund believed that experience sticks with you, leaving residual trauma lodged somewhere in your subconscious. And even if you don’t buy into his unproven hypotheses, think about that baby’s likely favorite word a couple of years later: “No”. Why do they say that all the time? They’re testing boundaries; they’re testing limits; they’re making sense of their world; and all the while they’re being instructed how to act. Many times, these instructions counter their natural inclinations. They adapt and experiment with ways to get their way.

This two-year-old eventually grows, and enters primary school. There she or he faces new authority figures (teachers), peers (classmates) and a more complex society. The child continues her or his attempts to resolve feelings of inadequacy caused by humiliation, injury, and other traumas. This continues to evolve in middle school, high school, and beyond. Every child gets injured, gets called on by the instructor when they don’t know the answer, has to face a bully in the schoolyard; not to mention the fears of rejection that crop up when one becomes a teenager.

All of a sudden, sometime during our early twenties—boom—one’s personality, and the associated inclinations, becomes far more concrete. All of those behaviors we’ve been experimenting with to either get our way or resolve feelings of inadequacy become unconscious go-to tools in our repertoire of reactions.

Executives are nothing but messed up grown ups dealing with the same psychological issues they’ve been harboring their whole lives. And just like their parents, teachers, and bullies in the schoolyards, their bosses, peers, and subordinates (as well as the stress of the job itself) can make them feel inadequate and emotionally insecure. Thus an almost uncontrollable reaction emerges. So why do they act this way? Partly habit, and partly because it’s worked for them in some way in the past…

There are three broad categories of responses from which individuals tend to choose during times of stress. The first two are well known: Fight (confrontation) versus flight (distancing). But what is less talked about is becoming the bully’s friend or embracing the stress (acquiescence, or false compliance). Freud considered these reactions hysteria, anxiety, and obsessive compulsion. Famed psychoanalyst Karen Horney classified them into moving against, moving away or moving toward behaviors.

Research has shown that leaders’ communication style and ways of demonstrating drive are influenced by the geographical region in which they operate. In the same vein, some cultures tolerate certain derailing characteristics in their managerial ranks more than others. Depending on the context, one’s dark-side tendencies may be a taboo weakness or, in contrast, may somehow avoid violating existing collective understanding of how an acceptable leader should act.

For example, when organizations emphasize rank, emerging leaders tend to develop unique coping skills. It is a leader’s job to implement mandates from above with lower-level employees. If overused, this strength can lead to a kiss up/kick down leadership style, characterized by excessive deference or sudden attention to detail when reporting up, and issuing fiery directives or refusing to compromise when commanding subordinates. This behavior set is tolerated more in certain countries, such as Turkey, India, Serbia, Greece, Kenya, and Mainland China, Hong Kong, and South Korea. Leaders from organizations operating in these locations tend to be diligent and dutiful with their bosses but intense and dominating with their reports. Although this behavior set is not demonstrated to such extremes by organizational leaders from countries like the US, UK and Australia, these same tendencies are found to be the least interfering with success across jobs in these locations.

In other parts of the world, it is more acceptable for leaders to become cynical or even covertly resistant under stress. These reactions usually occur when the individual is forced to pursue an objective or carry out a task without being won over or in the absence of sound rationale. Leaders with this style are more widely accepted in New Zealand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, where it doesn’t seem to impede their advancement.

Thus, it is imperative to study what country or regionally specific dark-side tendencies are more-or-less tolerated during promotion to executive positions. These data inform us on a country’s leadership emergence factors and clue us in to what the working population admires, sees as distasteful, and/or seeks to emulate. Furthermore, understanding the cultural differences will help stakeholders ask the right questions and make the right decision. Dark-side behaviors don’t always become obvious until the person is in a new, complex and stressful situation. Assessing early can help you identify these tendencies before making a promotion decision.