Being aggressive, selfish and manipulative doesn’t bring more power at work than being nice, generous and trustworthy, according to two studies that tracked people over more than a decade.
Although such intimidating behaviours can raise people’s positions of power, the studies found this was offset by poor interpersonal relations.
“It was like someone who wants to become physically fit,” says Cameron Anderson from the University of California, US, lead author of a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“If they exercise, that’s helpful, but if they also eat poorly, that is unhelpful, and those two behaviours will cancel each other out.”
The finding was consistent, which Anderson says was surprising – even holding true in combative organisational cultures.
“The bad news here is that organisations do place disagreeable individuals in charge just as often as agreeable people,” he says. “In other words, they allow jerks to gain power at the same rate as anyone else, even though [they] can do serious damage to the organisation.”
While aggressive, intimidating people clearly do hold positions of power, creating toxic work environments, it’s been unclear until now whether those traits helped them get there or not.
To shed light on this, the researchers gathered personality data from 457 college students and contacted them again around 14 years later to find out whether those who were more disagreeable were more likely to attain positions of power in their careers and organisations.
“Disagreeableness is a relatively stable aspect of personality that involves the tendency to behave in quarrelsome, cold, callous and selfish ways,” they explain. People with this trait “tend to be hostile and abusive to others, deceive and manipulate others for their own gain, and ignore others’ concerns or welfare”.
At follow-up, participants reported their level of power, rank and control over others, and their organisation’s characteristics, including its degree of combativeness.
Disagreeable people did not end up with more power, even after controlling for gender, age, race, grades, industry and organisational size and culture.
The second study followed another 214 people up for the same period and extended the first study’s findings by seeking independent ratings of their behaviour and personality traits by 540 co-workers, which they found corresponded with participants’ self-reports.
Again, extraverts were more likely to gain power, but disagreeable people were not – their dominant-aggressive behaviour did predict higher power but lack of communal behaviours nullified it.
The authors suggest that while some people may have developed nasty and unethical behaviour while in a position of power, these traits didn’t help them get there.
This “helps explode the myth that ‘nice guys and gals finish last,’ says Anderson. “So people seeking power don’t need to become more selfish, manipulative or bullying to get ahead.”
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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