Being selfish, aggressive or manipulative at work is not the way to gain power, says a recent study by University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business.

Researchers tracked people with these disagreeable traits from college or graduate school to where they landed in their careers about 14 years later.

“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,” said Berkeley Haas professor Cameron Anderson, who co-authored the study with UC Berkeley psychology professor Oliver P. John, Berkeley Haas doctoral student Daron L. Sharps and associate professor Christopher J. Soto of Colby College.

The paper was published Aug. 31 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers conducted two studies of people who had completed personality assessments as undergraduates or MBA students at three universities. They surveyed the same people more than a decade later, asking about their power and rank in their workplace hierarchies, as well as the culture of their organizations. They also asked their co-workers about the study participants’ workplace behavior and rank. Across the board, they found those who scored high on disagreeable 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 don’t get ahead faster than others, and being a jerk simply doesn’t help, Anderson said. That’s because any power boost they get from being intimidating is offset by their poor interpersonal relationships, the researchers found. In contrast, they found that extroverts were the most likely to have advanced in their organizations, based on their sociability, energy and assertiveness.

“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.”

Toxic role models

Ample research has shown that jerks in positions of power are abusive, prioritize their own self-interests, create corrupt cultures and, ultimately, cause their organizations to fail. They also serve as toxic role models for society at large.

“My advice to managers would be to pay attention to agreeableness as an important qualification for positions of power and leadership,” Anderson said. “Prior research is clear: Agreeable people in power produce better outcomes.”

What personality traits make someone disagreeable? “Disagreeableness is a relatively stable aspect of personality that involves the tendency to behave in quarrelsome, cold, callous and selfish ways,” the researchers 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.”

Source: University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business