Nice Works

Proof that selfish jerks don’t get ahead faster

Manager helping workers climb an incline formed by a line graph.The evidence is in: Nice guys and gals don’t finish last, and being a selfish jerk doesn’t get you ahead.

That’s the clear conclusion from research by Berkeley Haas Professor Cameron Anderson and others who tracked disagreeable people—those with selfish, combative, and manipulative personalities—from college or graduate school to where they landed in their careers some 14 years later.

In fact, the researchers found no relationship between power and disagreeableness. That was true regardless of gender, race or ethnicity, industry, or the cultural norms in an organization.

“I was surprised by the consistency of the findings,” says Anderson. “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.”

Berkeley Haas Professor Cameron Anderson

The paper, co-authored by UC Berkeley Psychology Professor Oliver P. John; Daron L. Sharps, MS 17, PhD 19; and Colby College Associate Professor Christopher J. Soto, was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Assessing Power

The researchers studied nearly 700 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 workplace hierarchies as well as the culture of their organizations.

The participants had all completed the Big Five Inventory, a personality assessment focused on the five fundamental personality dimensions generally agreed on by psychologists: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness.

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.

The first study surveyed people on their place in their work hierarchies. The second study went deeper, looking at the four main ways people attain power: dominant-aggressive behavior (using fear and intimidation), political behavior (building alliances with influential people), communal behavior (helping others), and competent behavior (being good at one’s job). Researchers also asked the study participants’ co-workers about their workplace behavior and rank. Interestingly, the co-workers’ ratings largely matched the subjects’ self-assessments. Across the board, researchers found those who scored high on disagreeable 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 don’t get ahead faster than others, and being a jerk simply doesn’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, extroverts were the most likely to have advanced in their organizations, based on their sociability, energy, and assertiveness—findings backed up by 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.”

Toxic Role Models

Whether being aggressively Machiavellian helps people get ahead is a critical question for managers, because ample research has shown that jerks in positions of power are abusive, prioritize their own self-interests, create corrupt cultures, and, ultimately, cause their organizations to fail. They also serve as toxic role models.

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. That is not the case, Anderson says.

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