Meet the lab series: Interview with Dr Jasmine Vergauwe

Written by Tim Vantilborgh

Interviewer: Jasmine Vergauwe, since 2022, you are a full-time assistant professor at the Work and Organizational Psychology (WOPS) research group at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). Your work has yielded unique insights on how personality affects leadership. Can you tell us more?

Thanks for having me. Throughout history, applied researchers have been interested in the predictive validity of traits for leadership outcomes because of the implications that such findings have for practice (e.g., selection, training, and development of leaders). In my research, I further substantiated these applied implications, by showing that charismatic personality predicts career success 15 years later, such that highly charismatic personalities are, for instance, inclined to have higher managerial positions, and hold leadership roles in their future careers. However, we also found inverted U-shaped relationships between leaders’ charisma and leader effectiveness in two other large and observer-rated samples, indicating that organizations may want to consider selecting applicants with midrange levels of charisma into leadership roles, instead of extremely charismatic leaders. Combined, more charisma seems to boost career success, but it seems to hurt leaders’ effectiveness from a certain point onwards.  
In line with this “too much of a good thing” effect for leader charisma, the idea that ineffectiveness is characterized either by deficiency (too little) or excess (too much) goes back to Aristotle and his Ethics. Yet, management theory and practice have paid little attention to the idea of “overkill”. This notion has somehow been overlooked in the design of assessment instruments, which are often not truly adequate for detecting excess (e.g., by using traditional Likert-type rating scales). This raises the question: By overlooking overkill, has the past 100 years of research and theory on leader behavior only considered half of the story? In line with recent calls for a paradigmatic shift towards curvilinear models, the “too little-too much” rating format (Vergauwe et al., 2017) may be one valuable way to advance theory building in management research and beyond, by uncovering curvilinear effects between predictors (e.g., behaviors) and criteria (e.g., performance). Moreover, allowing raters to indicate something as too little, the right amount, or too much has clear implications for practice. In a leadership assessment context, for instance, one can directly pinpoint under- or overdoing of certain behaviors, and the feedback following from this assessment can be very straightforward (e.g., “step up”, “tone down”, or “keep it up with more of the same”).

Interviewer: Can you explain what are the so-called dark personality traits you have been working on, and how they impact the workplace?

In terms of dark personality traits, I have mainly focused on the Dark Triad –i.e., narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. In a recent study, we for instance focused on leaders’ subclinical psychopathic traits, and how they relate to (subordinate-rated) leadership effectiveness. Based on our findings, we concluded that it is the meanness component of psychopathy (e.g., lack of empathy, cruelty) that consistently and negatively relates to leadership effectiveness, whereas both boldness (e.g., fearlessness, interpersonal dominance) and disinhibition (e.g., irresponsibility) were sometimes associated with markers of good leadership. In short, our study further invigorated evidence that high levels of certain psychopathic traits can sometimes be adaptive in a leadership context.
Such awareness is important, particularly because organizational researchers tend to rely on unidimensional, global measures of psychopathy. This neglect of qualitatively different psychopathy dimensions might have obscured (differential) relationships with leader effectiveness, creating further ambiguity about how psychopathic traits relate to leadership effectiveness. 

Interviewer: The impostor phenomenon has gained in popularity over the last years, and you were among the first scientists to investigate this phenomenon in the work context. Is this phenomenon something everyone feels to some degree? Is it confined to certain genders, positions in organizations, professions? What about scientists?

Yes, indeed. According to recent studies, approximately 70% of individuals experience some degree of the imposter phenomenon (IP) during their careers. In short, the IP was first introduced in 1978 by Clance and Imes to describe the intense feelings of intellectual fraudulence, often experienced by high-achieving individuals. Despite objective evidence of their intelligence, these people would be unable to internalize and accept their own achievements. In other words, they don’t attribute their successes to themselves or their capacities, but rather to external factors such as luck, misunderstandings, charm, attractiveness, or knowing the right people. Further, they are convinced that others overestimate their capacities and will eventually discover that they are not truly intelligent but go through life as ‘impostors.’ As a consequence, they constantly live in the fear of being exposed as an imposter. 
Previously, researchers tended to view it in a more categorical manner, labeling individuals as either “impostors” or not. However, contemporary research has adopted a dimensional perspective, recognizing a spectrum of impostor tendencies ranging from very little to very much. So while most people may experience it to some degree, some individuals may feel it more frequently and intensely than others.
Initially, there was a belief that the IP was something “typical for women”, but current research indicates that both men and women can experience intense impostor feelings.
Regarding professions, intellectually demanding jobs, such as those found in academia, may pose a higher risk for developing IP. These roles often require people to repeatedly demonstrate their intelligence, coupled with a substantial publication pressure, which can exacerbate impostor tendencies. While academia may be particularly susceptible, our Belgian research showed that high levels of impostor feelings exist across various sectors, including Human Resource Management, Finance & Accounting, and Education. Additionally, the IP transcends organizational hierarchies, as our study also revealed that approximately 20% of individuals across all levels—from entry-level employees to top executives—reported experiencing strong impostor feelings.

Interviewer: Where is your field heading to in the future? Are there initiatives that you are particularly excited about, that might shape the development of new practices in the workplace?
A significant shift is underway in how personality is conceptualized and studied in the field of Industrial and Organizational (I-O) Psychology. While the focus has long been on finding predictive relationships from personality to work outcomes, more recent research increasingly explores how work influences fluctuations in personality over time. Underlying this new research tradition is an altered view on personality that acknowledges the dynamic nature of personality, considering both short-term changes and long-term development. Consequently, the field is moving away from viewing personality as static, instead embracing a dynamic and developmental perspective where the relationship between personality and work is seen as bidirectional. 
Despite this progress, there remains a notable gap in research concerning how work impacts various aspects of personality, particularly subclinical dark traits. I’m excited to delve deeper into understanding how our work experiences further shape our personality, including our ‘dark side’. 
Interviewer: Your rapid rise from junior scientist to assistant professor is impressive: prestigious awards, high-impact scientific contributions to your field, all while starting a family. What advice would you give to early-career researchers who may be reading our newsletter?
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is crucial, along with acknowledging and celebrating achievements along the way. It's equally important not to take life, including your career, too seriously – especially when starting a family. Avoid being overly perfectionistic with yourself, and enjoy interpersonal contacts with colleagues who share similar interests.

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