Being an overconfident “jerk” doesn’t guarantee career success — new study.
There is still a commonplace notion that aggressive, confident (and predominantly male) leaders are the most successful, and that even their jerkish behavior can be forgiven if they get results.
In my book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, and in my article, “The Rise of Toxic Leaders and Toxic Workplaces,”I document the prevalence of leaders in organizations and government: Books, articles, seminars and speeches abound espousing the virtues of great leaders, effusive in their description of men and women who are selfless, humble, empathetic, compassionate, emotionally intelligent and altruistic. Hordes of consultants, university professors, researchers and coaches make their living espousing the need for choosing these kinds of leaders.
Thetruth of the matter is that we are hypocrites, and we are witnessing the rise of toxic leaders and workplaces.We tend to choose or follow a very different kind of leader. We hire and promote the psychopaths, the narcissists, the bullies and the autocrats dedicated to self-interest, and whose long-term impact can damage and even destroy organizations (and even countries). In my two decades as an executive coach, I have encountered more of the leaders described in this paragraph than those described in the first paragraph. Many people easily forgive these toxic leaders and the harm they cause because they measure their success solely in financial terms or because they bring charismatic entertainment value to the organization.
Tomas Chamorrow-Premuzic, in his article in the Harvard Business Review, “Why Do Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” examines the issue of why women are under-represented in management, and concludes it is “our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is, we commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are betters leaders than women.” He says that in many countries, men think they are much smarter than women; “Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leaders’ talent — the ability to build and maintain high performing teams and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest.” He cites a study of 23,000 participants in 26 cultures that indicated that women are more sensitive, considerate and humble than men and another study of thousands of managers in 40 countries which shows that men are consistently more arrogant, manipulative and risk-prone than women.
Chamorrow-Premuzic argues “the mythical image of a ‘leader’ embodies many of the characteristics commonly found in personality disorders, such as narcissism (Steve Jobs or Vladimir Putin), psychopathy (fill in the name of your favorite despot here), histrionic (Richard Branson or Steve Ballmer) or Machiavellian (nearly any federal-level politician) personalities. The sad thing is not that these mythical figures are unrepresentative of the average manager, but that the average manager will fail precisely for having these characteristics.”
The age-old question of whether being aggressively Machiavellian helps people get ahead has long interested Cameron Anderson, one of researchers of the study. It’s a critical question for managers, because ample research has shown that jerks in positions of power are abusive, prioritize their own self-interest, create corrupt cultures, and ultimately 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 study.
Although there is no academic or technical definition for “jerk.” The researchers turned to using descriptors of disagreeable personalities, which the researchers describe as “the tendency to behave in quarrelsome, cold, callous, and selfish ways.” It’s a set of tendencies that tend to remain stable over time and can be identified through some basic personality surveys. One of the personality assessments measured the five personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and agreeableness.
And it’s those later two features that enabled the researchers to think long-term.
Starting around the turn of the century, the researchers started giving undergraduate and MBA students personality tests each year. Then, in 2018 — an average of 14 years later — they got back in touch with some of the same students, with a third of them agreeing to do follow-up surveys, giving the researchers a total of about 670 participants. The studies they performed (a study and a replication of the result) were both preregistered, which ensures the researchers don’t just search for an analysis that produces a significant result.
Coauthor Oliver P. John, a professor of psychology who directs the Berkeley Personality Lab, developed the Big Five Inventory. In addition, some of the participants also completed a second personality assessment, the NEO Personality Inventory-Revised (NEO PI-R).
In the first study, which involved 457 participants, the researchers found no relationship between power and disagreeableness, no matter whether the person had scored high or low in those traits. That was true regardless of gender, race or ethnicity, industry, or the cultural norms in the organization.
The second study went deeper, looking at the four main ways people attain power: through dominant-aggressive behavior, or using fear and intimidation; political behavior, or building alliances with influential people; communal behavior, or helping others; and competent behavior, or being good at one’s job. They also asked the subjects’ coworkers to rate their place in the hierarchy, as well as their workplace behavior (interestingly, the coworkers’ ratings largely matched the subjects’ self-assessments).
This allowed the researchers to better understand why disagreeable people do not get ahead faster than others. Even though jerks tend to engage in dominant behavior, their lack of communal behavior cancels out any advantage their aggressiveness gives them, they conclude.
Anderson notes that the findings don’t directly speak to whether disagreeableness helps or hurts people attain power in the realm of electoral politics, where the power dynamics are different than in organizations. But there are some likely parallels.
“Having a strong set of alliances is generally important to power in all areas of life,” he says. “Disagreeable politicians might have more difficulty maintaining necessary alliances because of their toxic behavior.”
“This myth that bullying, nasty and selfish individuals get ahead isn’t supported,” says Cameron Anderson, “For people seeking power, you don’t need to play dirty to get it.”The bad news, Anderson says, is that organizations are putting disagreeable people in charge at the same rate that they are putting agreeable people in charge. People in powerful positions can do a lot of damage if they are selfish and bullying, he says.
“Disagreeableness is a relatively stable aspect of personality that involves the tendency to behave in quarrelsome, cold, callous, and selfish ways,” the researchers explain. “…Disagreeable people tend to be hostile and abusive to others, deceive and manipulate others for their own gain, and ignore others’ concerns or welfare.”
Anderson told the ABA Journal that some of the people in the study did become lawyers, but the study did not break out the impact of disagreeableness in law firm success. The study results, however, were remarkably consistent across organizations, and Anderson suspects that they would hold true in law firms.Even in combative workplaces, disagreeableness wasn’t helpful to success, Anderson says.“It didn’t matter who you were or where you worked, behaving badly just didn’t give enough of an advantage,” he says.
“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.
Across the board, the researchers found those with selfish, deceitful, and aggressive personality traits were not more likely to have attained power than those who were generous, trustworthy, and generally nice.
That’s not to say that jerks don’t reach positions of power. It’s just that they didn’t get ahead faster than others, and being a jerk simply didn’t help, Anderson says. That’s because any power boost they get from being intimidating is offset by their poor interpersonal relationships, the researchers found. In contrast, the researchers found that extroverts were the most likely to have advanced in their organizations, based on their sociability, energy, and assertiveness — backing up prior research.
“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.”
“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