Berkeley study just busted a major myth about success

This article was updated on September 4th, 2021

Being a jerk in the office isn’t going to pay off as much as it’s thought, according to a study.

It’s easy to assume that everyone in management or higher positions got to where they are through tactics that flirt on narcissism and ruthlessness. It’s perceived that those often successful are assertive and confident, can persuade (and even manipulate), which all can help you get ahead in life. But while that type of person might look good in a TV show, the reality is: It’s not helping you get ahead in your career.

A study conducted by the Berkeley Haas School of Business at the University of California found that being a jerk or having selfish tendencies doesn’t give you an advantage in advancing in your career.

Being a tough jerk doesn’t mean success

The paper, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, aimed to find where disagreeable people ended up in the careers over a 14-year period, and researchers said they were surprised at how similar the findings were across each example.

“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,” Berkeley Haas professor Cameron Anderson said in a press release.

This study is a pretty thorough look at personalities in the workplace. Researchers actually had two studies looking at undergraduates or MBA students at a few universities, where they followed up with them more than a decade later to see where they grew in the workplace.

Things like power, rank, and culture of their organizations were asked, according to the study, while coworkers were also asked to evaluate the participants’ workplace behavior.

What the study found was that those who were selfish, deceitful, and aggressive didn’t get ahead any more than those who were kinder, more generous, and trustworthy.

As CNN notes, certain qualities displayed earlier in careers resulted in a similar trajectory:

Those who were more sociable, energetic and assertive in their college years (extroverts) had achieved higher power in the workplace years later, while people who were more selfish, combative and deceitful did not have a higher likelihood for power — regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, degree program, work culture, industry, and college grade point average.

The study measured being a jerk based on the Big Five Inventory, or BFI, which measures personality traits such as openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness. Researchers ran through two separate studies with one yielding no relationship between power and disagreeableness. However, a second study dove deeper into how people find their way into power, which involved the answers from co-workers. The study said it focused on “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.”

While there’s no secret recipe in climbing up the ladder, one thing will that remains true is people who are perceived as disagreeable continue to call the shots which can pose problems, according to Anderson.

“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.”