Being a Selfish Jerk Doesn’t Help You Get Ahead: Study

(CN) — Being manipulative, self-interested, and aggressive in the workplace doesn’t actually achieve better success, as this behavior results in the detriment of all interpersonal relationships, according to new studies published Tuesday. 

The studies, led by researchers from the University of California Berkeley, including HAAS Professor Cameron Anderson, Professor Oliver John of Berkeley Psychology, Christopher J. Soto of Colby College and doctoral student Daron Sharps, were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team investigated the concept of Machiavellianism in career settings. This is a psychological term to describe the personality trait in which a person is so hyper focused on their own self-interest that they will manipulate, intimidate and step over others to achieve their goals. This is part of a larger concept known as the Dark Triad, which involves narcissism and psychopathy/sociopathy.

This trait can lead individuals to believe that their end goal will justify the means no matter what or who they have to overcome, and is most commonly seen in men. Some sure signs of Machiavellianism include low levels of warmth and empathy, use of flattery and deception, and overall prioritising money and power over personal relationships.

The studies were 14 years in the making, tracking the progress of nearly 500 individuals from college or graduate school up until recently to see how they aimed for success and the different ways they approached it. These individuals came from three universities and each had completed the Big Five Inventory, a personality assessment renowned by psychologists.

It is based on what professionals believe to be the five main tenets of the personality; openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and agreeableness. A number of participants also completed the NEO Personality Inventory-Revised assessment.

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

When the time came to check in with the participants, the authors inquired about their standings in their respective careers and asked for a description about their workplace culture. 

They also surveyed each of their co-workers and asked them to provide ratings and descriptions of the individuals’ behavior and relative standing, and found virtually unanimous results. Participants who exhibited rudeness, deception and toxic behavior did not achieve power any more than a kind person could.

“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,” Anderson said.

Although they had obtained some power, they didn’t come about it any faster than their more agreeable coworkers would have by being jerks. Anderson explained that this is because although the individuals had obtained power, they had severely damaged their interpersonal relationships. 

Someone else who had obtained the power by being extroverted and competent could have attained the same level without the intimidation tactics.

“The bad news here is that organizations do place disagreeable individuals in charge just as often as agreeable people,” Anderson said. “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.”

A similar study conducted by researchers from Georgetown University performed surveys on people who said they experienced toxic relationships at work. The study yielded striking statistics, such as 78% stating that they felt less committed to an organization, 66% stating that their quality of work declined and even 25% stating that they took their frustration out on customers.

Anderson added that more research would be needed to determine if these results translate to the political field, as there are many more factors to consider in that arena.

“Having a strong set of alliances is generally important to power in all areas of life,” Anderson said. “Disagreeable politicians might have more difficulty maintaining necessary alliances because of their toxic behavior.”

Although the findings from the first study didn’t show any correlation between positions of authority and disagreeableness, the second study found more results by looking at the different ways people climb the career ladder. They identified four main ways: through aggression and intimidation, gaining alliances by networking, being a team player and helping others and being competent at one’s job. 

In this way, the authors could see why the first strategy was not more effective than the others, because the jerks rarely, if ever, helped other people. They concluded that even if a person did get a leg up with their aggressive behavior, they are still at a disadvantage because of their unwillingness to be a team player.

Having specialized in social status, Anderson was fascinated by the prospect of studying Machiavellianism in the workplace. The jerk-boss is such a perpetuated stereotype because it is often reality, even though research shows that abusive leaders are more likely to produce poor results and drive away valuable employees.

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

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