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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Sep 25, 2020


There’s a popular mythology in business that being self-centred and cold towards others helps you to get ahead. But does being a jerk get you ahead at work? Research released this month addresses this question. 



Hello and welcome to episode 96 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we explore whether being a selfish jerk helps you to get ahead at work.

There’s a popular mythology in business that being self-centred and cold towards others can help you to get ahead. That if I act like an intimidating jerk, it will help me to get ahead at work. The thinking being that operating in this way will help me to amass power and influence. 

American baseball player, coach and manager Leo Durocher exemplified this approach well, perhaps not surprisingly given his nickname of Leo the Lip. Some of his more entertaining quotes include “nice guys finish last” and “show me a good loser and I’ll show you an idiot”. His winning ratio was 54%, so I guess he was a self-proclaimed idiot 46% of the time.

In the business world, people like Steve Jobs are held up as examples of how being aggressive and intimidating helps you to get things done. That being a jerk helps you to push through the constraints that hold others back. In fact, his close friend and former Apple designer Jony Ive described it like this: “I think honestly, when he's very frustrated, … his way to achieve catharsis is to hurt somebody. And I think he feels he has a liberty and licence to do that. The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don't apply to him. Because of how very sensitive he is, he knows exactly how to efficiently and effectively hurt someone. And he does do that.”

Disagreeable people are driven by self-interest and a lack of consideration for others. So how would this help them to progress more quickly up the corporate ladder? The popular thinking is that the time nice people spend looking out for others might hold them back, giving disagreeable people an advantage. Their intimidation then allows the disagreeable person to amass power and influence.

But are disagreeable people actually more likely to get ahead? Research by Anderson, Sharps, Soto and John published just this month explored precisely this question. They identified disagreeable people and then tracked their careers over the next 14 years.

Now, I know the question you’re asking - How do you identify a disagreeable person? The researchers used personality patterns associated with the likelihood to be hostile towards others, deceive and manipulate for their own gain, and ignore others’ welfare as indicators for disagreeableness. 

So what did they find? Their key finding is that disagreeableness does not predict attainment of power. Disagreeable people are not more likely, but just as likely, to reach positions of power and influence. It didn’t help their career, but it didn’t get in the way either.

The researchers described four main ways people can attain power:

  1. Dominant-aggressive behaviour - fear and intimidation

  2. Political behaviour - building alliances with influential people

  3. Communal behaviour - helping others

  4. Competent behaviour - being good at your job

The key to understanding why jerks don’t get ahead is in the trade-off the disagreeable person makes. The researchers suggested that any assistance being intimidating gave in seeking out power was counteracted by poor relationships with others. Their results suggest that a lack of communal behaviour counteracts any benefits of dominant-aggressive behaviour and self-interest.

So being disagreeable doesn’t work. But can the opposite also be true? Can we be overly agreeable? While the researchers didn’t explore this, it’s easy to see how being overly nice might also get in the way - that always focusing on helping others without placing any emphasis on our own needs and interests could also be a problem. 

I think the key to striking the right balance is through true assertiveness - having a genuine interest in others’ needs and interests, while also confidently presenting our own needs and interests. If you want to explore that further, then check out episode 6 from way back in August 2018 where we pick apart what true assertiveness looks like.

And if you want to go even deeper, check out our Boost Your Assertiveness course at Leadership Today On-Demand. Our On-Demand service is an annual subscription that brings together all of our video content, including online courses, recorded webinars, and quick hits on a broad range of leadership topics. You can sign up today for a free 30 day trial which gives you plenty of time to complete the course and take a look around. Just go to the Leadership.Today website and follow the On-Demand link. Have a great week.



Cameron Anderson, Daron L. Sharps, Christopher J. Soto, and Oliver P. John People with disagreeable personalities (selfish, combative, and manipulative) do not have an advantage in pursuing power at workPNAS, 2020 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2005088117