Recently, the Atlantic ran a story about the professional virtues of being a jerk.
The article — “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk” — argues that there’s some truth to the tired adage: as much as we may wish it were otherwise, nice guys do indeed finish last.
But not everyone’s buying it — or at least, they’re not buying it wholesale.
In the article, Jerry Useem cites a barrage of disturbing (or not disturbing, depending on how jerky you are) research that seems to prove that “undisguised heelish behaviour can often help you get ahead.”
In one study from the University of Amsterdam, people saw a man being rude to a waiter as “more likely to wield power than his politer self.” Another study showed that people respect confidence — even when that confidence comes from total delusion. Faking it till you make it gets you far, but actually believing you’ve made it — even if you have absolutely no basis for that belief — gets you even farther.
And once you’ve made it, being a jerk may continue to pay off.
Penn State researcher Donald Hambrick tells Useem that narcissistic leaders (colloquially, “jerks”) cluster at “both extremes of the success spectrum.” They may be more likely to fail big, but they’re also more likely to spectacularly succeed.
Of course, it’s all more nuanced than that, and unmitigated assholery won’t necessarily lead to success. Being a good jerk, and a productive jerk, means your jerk moves — prickliness, aggressiveness, breaking the occasional rule — have to be in service of a larger mission.
But while it’s absolutely possible to be the wrong kind of jerk, the article holds firm on one thing: the behaviour we generally recognise as “niceness” doesn’t pay.
Before you invest in a jerkier new you, though, consider this cautionary warning from Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown. Jerk behaviour may get people to do what you want, but, asshe writes in the New York Times, that power comes at a cost.
“How we treat one another at work matters,” she argues, and incivility — brusqueness with coworkers, belittling others, not taking responsibility when problems arise, acting as though you’re more important than everyone else — actually makes teams underperform.
For one thing, people are less focused when their bosses exhibit “disruptive behaviour,” Porath has found. When people are working in an “environment characterised by incivility,” they’re worse at processing information that’s right in front of them.
They’re also less likely to contribute to the team if they feel like they’re going to be immediately shut down. It’s a delicate balance: constructive criticism is paramount to productive collaboration, but too much criticism — or criticism that’s misdelivered — hampers progress.
(It’s worth noting, too, that very stressed out workers are more likely to encounter various health problems, from obesity to cardiovascular disease.)
And while the Dutch study Useem cites about the man at the café did suggest that people who violated the norms of basic manners were more likely to be seen as leaders, Porath uses other studies to make the opposite case.
“[T]he civil do succeed,” she says, and there’s research to prove it.
In a French study she references, those seen as civil were “twice as likely to be viewed as leaders.” Meanwhile, she points out, professors Amy Cuddy and Susan Fiske have shown that coming off as warm is one of two key traits that makes people decide to trust you. And one of Porath’s own (unpublished) studies showed that smiling and saying thanks makes people think you’re more civil, more warm, and more competent — all leadership positives.
When jerks succeed, Porath argues, it’s not because of their jerkiness, but in spite of it. “Sooner or later, uncivil people sabotage their success,” she writes in the Times, “or at least their potential.”
So which is it? Is Useem right, or is it Porath? Is saying please and not stealing the coffee pot off of your coworker’s desk a professional boon, or a career liability? Both, it turns out — and the two arguments may not be as incompatible as they initially seem.
You can, as Useem suggests, be challenging, difficult, and thorny. You can be tough and aggressive. You can “take extra cookies from the common plate,” both literally and metaphorically. But you can also say thank you.
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