The phrase “nice guys finish last” reflects the common perception that selfish people are more likely to succeed. Anyone who has had the misfortune to work for an abusive manager has probably suspected their nastiness helped them rise – it's not like such people usually appear particularly competent. However, new research throws doubt on this, indicating unpleasant people are no more likely to make a quick rise up the corporate ladder.
Professor Cameron Anderson of the University of California, Berkeley, conducted personality assessments of thousands of undergraduate and MBA students at three American universities. An average of 14 years later 671 of these agreed to follow up interviews that were used to estimate how powerful their current job was, and the culture of the organization where they worked. Almost a third of participants were part of a study that asked more detailed questions and confirmed findings with interviews of coworkers.
In Proceedings of the National Academy Of Sciences, Anderson and co-authors report some personality traits are associated with gaining more senior positions by one's mid-30s, but dishonesty, aggression, and selfishness are not among them.
"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 said in a statement. On the other hand, it doesn't seem to hurt either.
The authors think this is probably because the gains and losses of being a jerk roughly cancel out – for every person who gets ahead by backstabbing or bullying, there is someone who trips themselves up for want of interpersonal relationships. The authors anticipated there might be an inverted-U relationship, where the nicest and nastiest people both failed to rise, but didn't find this either. Wherever someone scored on the spectrum of decency, they had a roughly equal chance of obtaining power.
Some agreeable people at university might have turned manipulative on reaching the first rung of the corporate ladder, but, based on past research, the authors note “Disagreeableness is a relatively stable aspect of personality.”
As the authors write, the findings matter because “Disagreeable individuals with power can have toxic far-reaching effects.” Moreover, those who obtain positions of prominence as well as power “Serve as antisocial role models and encourage others to behave more disagreeably.” Learning that obnoxiousness is not a prerequisite for success could counteract that.
The traits that predicted career success were unsurprising. People described as extroverted, assertive, energetic, and sociable by their classmates were more likely to end up in positions of power.
So if people in powerful positions are not intrinsically nastier than the rest of us, why do we suspect otherwise? One possibility is that it is purely perception; a person with a typical mix of decency and selfishness will seem cruel simply by virtue of the harm their decisions can cause to those below. On the other hand, the authors acknowledge, it is possible that acquiring power changes enough of us that the perception is true, but only because ordinary people have been twisted by their jobs.