Hurst Photo/Shutterstock.com

Jerks Don’t Actually Get Ahead at Work

People with selfish, deceitful, and aggressive personality traits may not have an edge over generally nice people, a new study finds.

Being a selfish jerk doesn’t get you ahead, according to new research.

Researchers tracked disagreeable people from college or graduate school to where they landed in their careers about 14 years later.

“I was surprised by the consistency of the findings. No matter the individual or the context, disagreeableness did not give people an advantage in the competition for power—even in more cutthroat, ‘dog-eat-dog’ organizational cultures,” says coauthor Cameron Anderson, a professor at the  Haas at the University of California, Berkeley.

The researchers conducted two studies of people who had completed personality assessments as undergraduates or MBA students at three universities. They surveyed the same people more than a decade later, asking about their power and rank in their workplaces, as well as the culture of their organizations. They also asked their coworkers to rate the study participants’ rank and workplace behavior.

Does a Disagreeable Personality Help at Work?

Across the board, the researchers found those with selfish, deceitful, and aggressive personality traits were not more likely to have attained power than those who were generous, trustworthy, and generally nice.

That’s not to say that jerks don’t reach positions of power. It’s just that they didn’t get ahead faster than others, and being a jerk simply didn’t help, Anderson says. That’s because any power boost they get from being intimidating is offset by their poor interpersonal relationships, the researchers found. In contrast, the researchers found that extroverts were the most likely to have advanced in their organizations, based on their sociability, energy, and assertiveness—backing up prior research.

“The bad news here is that organizations do place disagreeable individuals in charge just as often as agreeable people,” Anderson says. “In other words, they allow jerks to gain power at the same rate as anyone else, even though jerks in power can do serious damage to the organization.”

The age-old question of whether being aggressively Machiavellian helps people get ahead has long interested Anderson, who studies social status. It’s a critical question for managers, because ample research has shown that jerks in positions of power are abusive, prioritize their own self-interest, create corrupt cultures, and ultimately cause their organizations to fail. They also serve as toxic role models for society at large.

For example, people who read former-Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ biography might think, “Maybe if I become an even bigger asshole I’ll be successful like Steve,” the authors note in their paper.

“My advice to managers would be to pay attention to agreeableness as an important qualification for positions of power and leadership,” Anderson says. “Prior research is clear: agreeable people in power produce better outcomes.”

While there’s clearly no shortage of jerks in power, there’s been little empirical research to settle the question of whether being disagreeable actually helped them get there, or is simply incidental to their success. Anderson and his coauthors set out to create a research design that would clear up the debate.

What Makes a Person a Jerk?

What defines a jerk? The participants had all completed the Big Five Inventory (BFI), an assessment based on general consensus among psychologists of the five fundamental personality dimensions: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness. Coauthor Oliver P. John, a professor of psychology who directs the Berkeley Personality Lab, developed the BFI. In addition, some of the participants also completed a second personality assessment, the NEO Personality Inventory-Revised (NEO PI-R).

“Disagreeableness is a relatively stable aspect of personality that involves the tendency to behave in quarrelsome, cold, callous, and selfish ways,” the researchers explain. “…Disagreeable people tend to be hostile and abusive to others, deceive and manipulate others for their own gain, and ignore others’ concerns or welfare.”

In the first study, which involved 457 participants, the researchers found no relationship between power and disagreeableness, no matter whether the person had scored high or low on those traits. That was true regardless of gender, race or ethnicity, industry, or the cultural norms in the organization.

The second study went deeper, looking at the four main ways people attain power: through dominant-aggressive behavior, or using fear and intimidation; political behavior, or building alliances with influential people; communal behavior, or helping others; and competent behavior, or being good at one’s job. They also asked the subjects’ coworkers to rate their place in the hierarchy, as well as their workplace behavior (interestingly, the coworkers’ ratings largely matched the subjects’ self-assessments).

This allowed the researchers to better understand why disagreeable people do not get ahead faster than others. Even though jerks tend to engage in dominant behavior, their lack of communal behavior cancels out any advantage their aggressiveness gives them, they conclude.

Anderson notes that the findings don’t directly speak to whether disagreeableness helps or hurts people attain power in the realm of electoral politics, where the power dynamics are different than in organizations. But there are some likely parallels.

“Having a strong set of alliances is generally important to power in all areas of life,” he says. “Disagreeable politicians might have more difficulty maintaining necessary alliances because of their toxic behavior.”

The paper appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Additional coauthors are from UC Berkeley Psychology and Colby College.

Source: UC Berkeley

This article was originally published in Futurity. Edits have been made to this republication. It has been republished under the Attribution 4.0 International license.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.