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There are three types of ruthlessness – but only two will help you succeed at work

A researcher at the University of Bern in Switzerland, split ruthlessness into three different traits – Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy

Zlata Rodionova
Friday 15 January 2016 15:19
Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho
Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho

Popular culture tells us that ruthlessness might not win you friends, but it’s one way to get ahead at work.

From Patrick Bateman, the high-powered Wall Street investment banker in American Psycho, to Don Draper, Mad Men’s cold-hearted creative director, we associate ruthlessness with career success and power.

But a new study has revealed that there is more than one type of ruthlessness – and not every type will help you get ahead.

Daniel Spurk, researcher at the University of Bern in Switzerland, split ruthlessness into three different traits – Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy – after studying 800 German employees across various industries.

He asked participants to complete an online questionnaire measuring their response to questions like “I lack remorse,” and “I like others to pay attention to me.”

The results, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science Journal and reported by the BBC, showed that people with narcissistic and Machiavellian personality traits were more likely to succeed, at least in some ways, than those with psychopathic traits.

Not only did people with psychopathic traits perform worst of the three, there was evidence to show that these people were less likely than ordinary people to succeed.


People with psychopathic traits performed worse on Spurk’s measure of success. Not only did they earn less money, but they also worked in lower position than their colleagues and were less satisfied with their success.

Impulsiveness and the tendency to take risks meant psychopathic people were less likely to succeed, Spurk found.

“Psychopaths are really impulsive – they have real problems with controlling behaviour,” he said.


Machiavellianism, or the ability to manipulate people, did improve people’s changes of success, according to the study.

It’s perhaps no surprise that persuasive people are able to get what they want in the workplace.

Narcissism: John Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men


Narcissism, more than the other two traits, could lead to better earnings, Spurk’s research suggested.

The confidence and sense of self-worth associated with narcissists made them good negotiators, according to the survey.

“Individuals high in narcissism have good impression management, so they can convince their colleagues or supervisors that they are worth special advantages,” Spurk said.

But before manipulating your colleagues, Spurk cautions that these behaviours are not to be taken lightly

Narcissist may seem initially charming but once their novelty wears off, their peers often find them tiring. While Machiavellians may come under fire if their manipulative strategies come to light.

“Although people who don’t know them very well think they are charismatic, in the mid-to-long term there might be situations where people are no longer fascinated by their behaviour,” Spurk said.

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