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  • 02.02.11

When a Little Bad Behavior Is a Good Thing

Powerful people are apt do all sorts of socially inappropriate things. But one of the great ironies of all this bad behavior is that it makes the people who do it seem even more powerful.

Powerful people often act as if the rules don’t apply to
them, or that even if the rules do apply, they don’t really care.

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Research shows that when people feel powerful, they are more
likely to act according to their own goals, rather than what’s best for the
group. They are less sensitive to
what’s happening around them, disregard input from others, and ignore social
norms. They are more sensitive to their own internal
states and feelings, and care less
about what others may think of them.

(And this happens even when the experience of power is new
or temporary–there’s something about power that seems to immediately turn our
vision inward).

The net result is a lot of bad behavior–not necessarily illegal, but certainly obnoxious. Powerful people are apt do all sorts of
socially inappropriate things.
They interrupt more frequently, invade personal space, take credit for
other people’s ideas, make insulting remarks, and are more likely to engage in
sexual harassment (okay, that last one actually is illegal).

One study even showed that powerful people are more
likely eat with their mouths open.
I had noticed that one myself in graduate school. It often seemed like the more prominent
and well-regarded a professor was, the more unpleasant he was to share a meal
with.

One of the great ironies of all this bad behavior is that
while we may find it personally offensive, breaking the rules of good conduct
actually makes these people seem even more powerful.

New research from psychologists at the University of
Amsterdam shows that when someone violates a social norm, we assume, often
unconsciously, that they are somehow
free to do what they want. In
their studies, men and women who took someone else’s coffee, brushed minor
mistakes under the carpet rather than correcting them, put their feet up on the
table, or flicked cigarette ashes on the floor, we judged as more powerful than
those who were better-behaved.

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Despite being seen as rude and somewhat unpleasant, the
rule-breakers were seen as more influential, more likely to hold a leadership
position, and more able to “make life difficult for others.”

I hate to be an advocate for bad manners, but since so much
of any individual’s success depends on how they are perceived, it’s worth taking
a moment to think about how a little strategically
bad behavior might raise your profile. Eccentric is
better than offensive, because
eccentricity is about breaking the rules in relatively harmless ways, and keeps
ill will to a minimum.

Being able to project an air of indifference, to make it seem
like you don’t really care what other people think (even if you really do) and
are free to do whatever you want, will leave others with the impression that you
are a force to be reckoned with. Just do yourself a favor, and
however you decide to break the rules, keep it legal. And seriously, don’t chew with your mouth open.

Heidi’s new book, Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals is available wherever books are sold. Follow her on Twitter @hghalvorson.

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