You won’t get ahead in life by being a selfish jerk, new research suggests

By | August 31, 2020

TORONTO — Some like to preach that because life is hard, we have to harden ourselves to get ahead.

But according to a pair of 14-year-long studies, being a jerk does not help you get ahead in business or your career.

A paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed the results of two longitudinal studies, which tracked whether unpleasant people actually attained more power “in the context of their work organization.”

Conducted by researchers from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, the paper combined two studies that had assessed the personalities of individuals as undergraduates, or grad students studying business, across three different universities. The first study assessed nearly 500 people.

More than a decade later, these same individuals were tracked down and followed up on in order to see if the disagreeable people had succeeded in their chosen field.

“Across the board, they 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,” a press release on the study stated.

This doesn’t mean no one who reaches a position of power is a jerk, obviously. We’ve all had that boss.

“The bad news here is that organizations do place disagreeable individuals in charge just as often as agreeable people,” Berkeley Haas Prof. Cameron Anderson, a co-author of the paper, said in the press release.

The study simply suggests that jerks and nice people gain power at an equal rate, instead of jerks having a leg up.

Being intimidating to your subordinates, it seems, can only take you so far.

The personality trait that contributed most to people succeeding in life was being extroverted — the ability to socialize predicted power where cruelty did not.

According to the press release, Anderson has been interested in the concept of whether it truly is a dog-eat-dog world for a while. The question of whether being a horrible person helps you succeed in business is important, because a jerk CEO with power over a lot of people is capable of damaging more lives than the average jerk.

“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,” the press release points out. “They also serve as toxic role models for society at large.”

To measure disagreeableness, participants took the Big Five Inventory personality test, a test where participants rate their own agreement with statements (e.g. “I have an assertive personality”) on a strongly agree to strongly disagree scale. The test, designed by the Berkeley Personality Lab, measures “openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness.”

Some participants also took a second personality assessment, the NEO Personality Inventory-Revised.

“Disagreeable people tend to be hostile and abusive to others, deceive and manipulate others for their own gain, and ignore others’ concerns or welfare,” researchers said in the press release, adding that selfishness is a huge jerk trait.

To measure the power a person had accrued in their professional life, participants were asked to rate their influence at work by answering a number of questions. Participants would answer on a scale of one (strongly agree) to seven (strongly disagree). Questions included things such as “I have influence over important decisions,” “I can get others to listen to what I say,” “I can punish or reward subordinates,” or “my ideas and opinions are often ignored,” among others.

In the second study, coworkers were also asked to answer these same questions about the participant of the study in question, in order to get an external view of their power within the organization.

Other questions assessed how the participant was perceived at work, how empathetic they were and their competence.

So why didn’t the jerks get ahead by stepping on others?

Researchers found there were two distinct reasons, which persisted no matter the organization’s culture, or individual differences in participants such as gender or ethnicity.

Disagreeable people engaged in “more dominant-aggressive behaviour” that would normally predict them to ascend to power, but they also failed to show generosity or engage in communal activities that would lead to them accruing allies.

“These two effects, when combined, appeared to cancel each other out and led to a null correlation between disagreeableness and power,” the study abstract stated.

Does this hold true for specialized jobs, such as politics?

According to the press release, the power dynamics in politics are too different to transfer the results of this study over seamlessly, but there could be parallels. 

“Disagreeable politicians might have more difficulty maintaining necessary alliances because of their toxic behavior,” Anderson wrote in the release.

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