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Are jerks more likely to get ahead at work?

illustration of a man in a suit standing with his arms crossed on a pile of other men in suitsStartling new research upends our assumptions about who winds up in the corner office.

Marianne Ayala/Insider

For much of his career as an organizational psychologist, Cameron Anderson had been curious about a seemingly simple question: Does being a jerk help people ascend the ranks of power? But it wasn’t until November 2016, when voters elevated Donald Trump to the most powerful position in the world, that Anderson was spurred into action. 

“I couldn’t help but think, ‘OK, now is the time to finally do a proper study on it,'” says Anderson, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of California at Berkeley. “It’s just such a pervasive notion, that these egotistical narcissists and Machiavellians are the ones that make it to the top. It just seems like a given. It’s almost a truism.” 

From Ivan the Terrible to Elon Musk, there seems to be a well-documented pattern of assholes who wind up in charge. Surely, we think, they must have gotten ahead — at least in part — because of their despicable personalities. Even worse, all the cutthroat role models we’re surrounded by at work make us hesitant about being nice ourselves. We worry that the bullies and backstabbers will eat us for lunch as they march their way up the corporate ladder. 

But according to Anderson’s study, that’s simply not true. Using the results of a personality test taken by college and graduate students two decades ago, he and his colleagues tracked down the participants to see how they’ve fared in their careers. In the social sciences, the technical term for jerks — those who are combative, selfish, and manipulative — is “disagreeable.” Anderson found that the students with disagreeable personalities weren’t any likelier to rise to positions of power than their nicer counterparts. And their environment had no effect on the outcome: Even in the most toxic workplaces, being an asshole didn’t help people get ahead. 

So does that mean that being good is actually the secret to success? Not necessarily. Anderson’s study revealed a surprisingly complex aspect to an age-old question about human nature: How do we amass influence in a community? The answer is as applicable to our 21st-century office lives as it is to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. As social creatures, we’ve always formed hierarchies, and where we rank on them can determine whether we struggle or thrive.

One theory of how we rise up the ranks posits that we rely on aggression to intimidate our peers into submission, the way gorillas and chimpanzees do. Call this the jerk way. Another theory asserts the opposite — that we build allies by performing acts of generosity, something that’s much more common in humans. Call this the nice-guy way. There’s a whole universe of research that looks into the relationship between personality and hierarchy, with ardent proponents and solid evidence on both sides. (There’s actually a third theory, that we amass power by exhibiting competence, but we’ll ignore that one for the moment, since it’s jerk neutral.) 

Anderson places himself firmly in the nice-guy camp: He doesn’t think intimidation is the primary path to power. But interestingly, his study suggests it’s a little bit of both. To tease out the effects of jerkiness, he and his colleagues also assessed people’s actual behavior in the workplace — how dominant-aggressive they were versus how communal they were. As you would expect, those who were disagreeable as students engaged in a lot of dominant-aggressive behavior and not so much communal behavior as older, mid-career adults. 

But here’s where it gets interesting. Anderson found that both kinds of behavior — dominance and communality — are correlated with amassing power. And this may be why jerks end up not getting any further than nice guys, despite our common assumptions. The assertiveness of a jerk does, in fact, help. But their lack of generosity holds them back. The two traits end up canceling each other out. 

A recent study echoes this finding. Researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the University of Iowa, and Purdue University teamed up to analyze the results of some 200 studies that looked at the effects of what psychologists call prosocial motivations — namely, whether people have the desire to benefit others. In their metastudy, the nice guys weren’t just on par with the jerks, as Anderson found: The nice guys actually finished first in workplace outcomes.

But when the researchers dug a little deeper into the findings, they found that some aspects of being nice are more beneficial than others. What matters most, it turns out, aren’t the sunny, superficial behaviors we associate with being agreeable — cooperative, polite, kind. What matters most is truly caring about others. In fact, without any prosocial motivations, being agreeable is actually detrimental to job performance and career success. Sure, Ted in accounting is friendly and noncombative. But he didn’t lift a finger to help out when that big report was due. Being pleasant is not the same as supporting and championing those around you.

I ask Anderson if there’s a word to describe people who, based on these findings, are following the optimal path to power: someone who is generous and caring, but also assertive and maybe even forceful. “It’s sort of like a superhero, right?” he says. “You think of superheroes as strong, but very moral, and warm.” With his MBA students, he often cites Oprah as an example. “She just has this absolute inner strength, but at the same time doesn’t seem jerky.” 

For those of us non-assholes, Anderson’s findings don’t come as a total relief. All in all, being a jerk doesn’t help you get ahead — but it also doesn’t hurt. That poses a thorny problem for organizations. Although researchers remain split on whether being a bully is beneficial for the bully, the evidence is clear that such behavior is overwhelmingly harmful to those around the bully, and to the company that employs the bully. It’s good that managers aren’t necessarily favoring the jerks. But unless they take action to correct the jerk’s misbehavior, they aren’t acting in the best interests of their organizations. 

“Often what happens is, you have this rainmaker who is a massive jerk, but you keep him because he’s producing more than anybody else,” Anderson says. “What the studies show is that this is a terrible idea, because the damage that he’s doing to everybody else’s performance outweighs the gains of his own. We underestimate the damage that assholes do.” 

So what’s the remedy? One solution is to institute what Bob Sutton, a professor of management science at Stanford University, calls a “no-asshole rule” — a zero-tolerance policy toward jerky behavior. Another option is to overhaul annual performance reviews to actually reward niceness and punish jerkiness, with raises and promotions tied to the kinds of behavior that benefit the organization as a whole. 

“A lot of performance-management systems are still rooted in individual performance,” says Christine Porath, a management professor at Georgetown who has studied the harms of what she euphemistically calls incivility. “It’s not about who you bring along. There might be words that say that ‘respect matters,’ but it’s not measured. That promotes cynicism.” 

That might be beginning to change. Sutton’s no-asshole rule has become widely adopted, and businesses like Atlassian have overhauled their performance reviews in part to ensure that “brilliant jerks” can’t get ahead. “When I started this research, I felt like I needed to convince people to even have it on their radar,” Porath says. Now, employers are reaching out to her on their own to see what they can do to make their employees be better to each other. What’s more, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of mental health in the workplace, and the Great Resignation has forced managers to be nicer to their staff for fear of losing them. 

The shift is also showing up in the way we view business leaders. Elon Musk, for example, has been an infamous tyrant for years, and the market rewarded him for it. But now his behavior at Twitter — the same smug callousness that helped build his fortune at Tesla and SpaceX — is sparking a new level of collective outrage. I think that speaks to just how much our standards have changed. A few years ago, Musk could boast about forcing his employees to work 100-hour weeks and still retain his halo as a visionary who was saving humanity from itself. Today, that same behavior has prompted critical staff to flee Twitter — and helped dethrone Musk as the world’s richest man. 

That points to a new ethos emerging in corporate America. Sure, Musk may have been able to bully his way to the very top of the pecking order in the past — but the next generation of business leaders is going to be far less forgiving of future Elons. And with fewer assholes in the C-suite, we may finally put to rest one of the most durable and toxic of American myths: that nice guys, by virtue of their niceness, finish last.  

“At the employee level, the rank and file, people aren’t willing to put up with that anymore,” Anderson says. “The sands are shifting in a way that I think is fantastic.” 

Aki Ito is a senior correspondent at Insider. 

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