When we talk about being a "good" person, we're usually talking about having personality traits that get a social thumbs up, such as honesty, patience and courage. The other side of the coin exists, though, too, exemplified through traits like narcissism, spitefulness and disloyalty. Scientists now say these negative personality traits share a common 'dark core'.

Defining the "D-factor"

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen, Ulm University and University of Koblenz-Landau conducted a series of studies with more than 2,500 people focusing on nine common negative traits (egoism, Machiavellianism, moral disengagement, narcissism, psychological entitlement, psychopathy, sadism, self-interest and spitefulness). They asked participants how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like "I know that I am special because everyone keeps telling me so." They also studied other self-reported behaviors, such as impulsivity. Finally, researchers attempted to map a common denominator present in the nine personality traits.

The experts involved in the work define this common denominator, the D-factor or "dark core", as the general tendency to maximize one's individual utility (i.e., to put your interests and goals over others and even enjoy it) while having beliefs that serve as justifications. While somebody certainly can display one negative trait more than others, the dark core means that, if a person shows one of the negative personality traits, they're probably going to have a strong tendency to show one or more of the others, as well. So don't be too surprised, for example, if the same team member who fudges the books also plays mean office pranks or can't stop crowing about their own accomplishments.

How understanding the "dark core" gives you a leadership edge

In terms of leadership, understanding the D-factor is helpful because it helps you understand how likely it is that employees or team members are going to engage in specific behaviors that could hurt your company. That can influence how much support or the number of controls you put in place for their work, as well as specific psychological strategies you use to keep them motivated and productive. It also can influence decisions such as hiring and promotion.

The problem, of course, is authenticity. While some individuals naturally are more open about who they really are, others are experts at showing people what they think others want to see. They try hard to hide their natural tendencies. The only ways to really figure out how high someone's D-factor might be is to engage frequently with them through many different scenarios or to have them undergo a standardized screening process. It's also important to get feedback from others, as they can verify whether something feels off or you're being manipulated. Realize you might be too close to the situation to be objective, and make sure that your HR and mental health team are trained to spot behaviors that could signal a problem. Remember that the more transparent you are, the more likely it is that people will trust you enough to reveal their real selves.

As a final note, keep in mind that experts now consider personality to be somewhat fluid. It is influenced not only by environmental elements, such as your interactions with others, but also biological elements, such as hormones and genes that might be "on" or "off" at any given time. This means that you shouldn't assume certain employees never will become a problem, and conversely, even if you see a higher D-factor in someone, it's not necessarily the end of the world. With guidance and other scientific therapies, they might learn to see the world differently and behave better. This is the whole concept behind rehabilitation, and it's a powerful reason for hope.