At Work, Jerks Don’t Get Ahead Any Faster Than Nice People: Study
‘Nice guys finish last’ is a common phrase uttered by those lamenting the drawbacks of their niceness, be it in the pursuit of romantic relationships or a sought-after promotion at work. The equation of being nice with being a pushover, but more importantly the unsaid equation of being an asshole with being someone who is tough and can get things done, is an age-old trope that has dominated pop culture. This often creates the perception of a binary, separated into abrasive go-getters and their inferior counterpart — those who get left behind.
This binary, however, does not play out the same way in reality. A new study tracking disagreeable people over 14 years of their lives found people who are assholes don’t necessarily get ahead at work faster than their colleagues who are nice. The jerks’ seemingly badass lack of individual regard for others, researchers found, always gets offset by their lack of interpersonal relationships in the workplace, making them no better than anyone else.
So, what does being a jerk actually entail? “Disagreeableness is a relatively stable aspect of personality that involves the tendency to behave in quarrelsome, cold, callous, and selfish ways,” the researchers of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 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.”
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And these people, who treat agreeability in the workplace as optional, have long been assumed to have the cutthroat mentality needed to make it in a ruthless world. People who are arrogant or overconfident are seen as more deserving of responsibility and admiration; people who behave rudely or with a flagrant disregard for rules are seen as stronger, more powerful, and important; and people who make it seem as if they don’t care about being agreeable were likely to make more money. An important point to note here, however, is that most of this research focuses on how assholes are perceived but doesn’t shed light upon how these people do in workplaces in the long term.
The latest study shows overconfidence, rudeness, and arrogance might be traits that are appealing at first glance but don’t last long when put to the test of teamwork, collaboration, and cooperation — tenets that are central to any workplace running smoothly. The latest study shows people who value team-centric approaches instead of me-centric approaches, and those who value building alliances than their own reputation, are as likely to succeed in the long run.
So, while the research shows that jerks are not being unduly rewarded in the workplace over others, it points out they’re not being penalized for their behavior either. Essentially, their bad attitudes are not proving to be detrimental to their professional growth, they’re just not giving them a leg up over others as previously assumed. Looking at this research from a gendered perspective, for example, highlights a masculinity contest culture that often plagues modern, male-dominated workplaces, in which competition, aggression, and one-upmanship are still rewarded, and arrogance and selfishness are valued. We already know kinder, collaborative, and community-building team operations (reflective of more feminine traits) do a lot better in the long run, completely devoid of blowhard arrogance. They might not seem glamorous but instead are responsible, efficient, and effective.
At the end of the day, it’s not enough to assign value to non-normative ways of functioning in a workplace, we also need to devalue harmful behaviors that insert toxicity into the work environment. The faster we move away from rewarding bad behavior as the byproduct of some kind of socially deviant genius, the quicker we’ll get to more equitable, effective, and efficient workplaces that value community accomplishments over individual accolades, and learn to value each member for what they bring to the table, and not just stare in awe at the flashy, insouciant few.