You’ve probably heard that ‘nice guys finish last.’ It’s a cliched sentiment that implies you have to be ruthless to get ahead. That’s why we see so many stereotypical jerk bosses in pop culture. It’s a good story. The nice guy (or gal) underdog held back by their own common decency while people who are prepared to stab others in the back rise through the ranks.
As popular as this recurring narrative is, it turns out that it’s not actually true.
A new study that tracked “disagreeable people” from when they graduated college or university to where their careers took them over a period of 14 years has found that jerks don’t rise to the top.
Even the researchers themselves were not expecting the results they discovered.
“I was surprised by the consistency of the findings. 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,” said Berkeley Professor Cameron Anderson, the study’s co-author.
Researchers conducted two studies of people who had completed personality assessments as undergraduates or MBA students at three universities. Then they surveyed the same people over a decade later, asking about their power and rank in their workplaces, as well as the culture of their organizations. They also asked the participants’ co-workers to rate the study’s subjects on their rank and workplace behavior.
Across the board, the results show that people with selfish, deceitful, and aggressive personality traits were not more likely to have attained power than those who were considered to be generous, trustworthy, and generally nice.
So, while it’s good to know that jerks aren’t rising to the top by default – they’re also not being penalized for being such negative characters.
“The bad news here is that organizations do place disagreeable individuals in charge just as often as agreeable people,” Anderson noted. “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.”
How do the researchers define jerks?
The participants 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.
“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 are also likely to drive an expensive car. (A separate study from earlier this year revealed that luxury car drivers were far more likely to be jerks.)
Bottom line: You’re going to meet some jerks at work. That’s inevitable. Every workplace has at least one or two. At least this study shows that they are unlikely to be rewarded for their negative attitudes – and you don’t have to sink to their level in order to get ahead. Nice guys and gals do just as well.
See also: Ten ways not to be a jerk at work.