Being a Selfish Jerk Doesn’t Help You Succeed

Leaders don't get ahead faster if they're bullies.

Shouting senior man with road rage shakes his fist from his car
Bullies succeed, but not faster than anyone else. RapidEye / Getty Images

Good news for nice people everywhere: New research finds that self-centered bullies aren’t more likely to get ahead than anyone else.

Whether it's managing a business, leading a government, heading environmental policy, or just working alongside others, it doesn't pay to be mean.

Researchers tracked disagreeable people from college or graduate school to where they were in their careers about 14 years later. Disagreeableness, they noted, is defined as “behaving in aggressive, selfish, and manipulative ways.”

They found that being calculating and self-absorbed didn’t seem to help a person’s career.

“I was surprised at how consistently disagreeableness had no effect on power,” study co-author Cameron Anderson, a professor at Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, tells Treehugger. “It didn't matter where people worked, or who they were, disagreeableness simply provided no benefit to power. Even in organizations that were more cutthroat and competitive.”

For the study, Anderson and his team conducted two studies of people from three universities who had completed personality assessments when they were undergraduates or MBA students. Then they caught up with them more than about 14 years later, asking them about their power and rank at work. They also asked their coworkers about the study participant’s behavior at work and rank in the workplace, as well as the office environment. They found that those who scored high on disagreeable traits on the personality tests were not more likely to have reached powerful positions at work than those who were trustworthy, generous, and just nice in general.

That doesn’t mean that selfish jerks don’t reach powerful positions, the researchers say. It’s just that they don’t get there faster than anyone else and being manipulative and unpleasant doesn’t help in their ascent. That’s because any benefit they get from being intimidating is counteracted by their weak interpersonal relationships. 

“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 Relationship Between Disagreeableness and Power

In the first study, researchers looked at 457 participants who had completed the Big Five Inventory (BFI), which measures what many psychologists consider to be the five fundamental dimensions of personality: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness. The BFI was developed by study co-author, UC Berkeley psychology professor Oliver P. John, who directs the Berkeley Personality Lab. Some of the participants also completed a second personality assessment, the NEO Personality Inventory-Revised (NEO PI-R).

The researchers used the assessment results to measure each participant on their disagreeableness.

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

They found no relationship between disagreeableness and power, no matter how high or low the person had scored. The findings held true regardless of race, gender, and ethnicity, as well as the cultural environment in the workplace.

In the second study, they looked more deeply at the four primary ways people attain power:

  • dominant-aggressive behavior, or using fear and intimidation
  • political behavior, or building alliances with influential people
  • communal behavior, or helping others
  • competent behavior, or being good at one’s job

They also asked the participants’ coworkers to weigh in. They asked them to rate the subjects’ workplace behavior and where they ranked in the workplace hierarchy. They found that the coworkers’ ratings closely matched the participants’ self-assessments.

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Studying Jerks

Anderson, who studies social status, has long been interested in whether being devious and aggressive helps people succeed. 

“I had observed many people in powerful positions who were massive jerks — in politics, in business, and in academia,” Anderson says. “So I couldn't help but wonder whether their disagreeableness helped them attain that power.”

It’s an important question for managers, he says, because many studies have shown that jerks who hold powerful positions create corrupt workplace environments, are abusive, and look out for their own interests, causing their organizations to fail. They also become toxic role models for society.

“The takeaway is that being a jerk doesn't help you gain power — though it doesn't hurt either. It simply has no effect,” Anderson says. “So power-seekers should not engage in nasty, bullying, selfish behavior to achieve higher power. It doesn't help them.”