Don’t Be a Jerk at Work

jerk at work
By Yvonne Milosevic
We’ve got good news for everyone who hates ultra-aggressive company cultures. You know, places where intimidating, selfish, manipulative people always seem to get ahead. Researchers from UC Berkeley have found that obnoxious people have no advantage over their nicer peers. It turns out, there’s zero upside to being a jerk at work.
These are the results of a 14-year study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Berkeley Haas professor and study co-author Cameron Anderson says the consistency of the findings surprised him.
“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.”

Still, we know that jerks continue to land in power positions. But these researchers say the terrible behavior itself doesn’t propel their advancement. In fact, any power boost a jerk at work gets from their intimidation tactics is offset by their lousy interpersonal relationships. 

 In contrast, they discovered that extroverts had the best odds of advancing in their organizations. As prior research shows, sociability, energy, and assertiveness lead to positive results.

Yeah, but there are still plenty of jerks around the office.

“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 question of whether adopting a Machiavellian M.O. helps people get ahead has long interested Anderson, who studies social status. And it’s a critical question for managers, too. Jerks in positions of power create corrupt cultures and prioritize their own self-interests. In the end, these traits cause their organizations to fail. They also serve as toxic role models for society at large.

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.

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