Study shows being a selfish jerk doesn't get one ahead

Nice guys and gals don't finish last, and being a selfish jerk doesn't get you ahead. Research shows that no matter the individual or the context, disagreeableness did not give people an advantage in the competition for power including in cutthroat, 'dog-eat-dog' organizational cultures.



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 co-workers to rate the study participants' rank and workplace behaviour. 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.


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. 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 age-old question of whether being aggressively Machiavellian helps people get ahead has long interested researchers. 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.

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.


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.


Source: University of California - Berkeley Haas School of Business