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Berkeley study: People who gain power at work are not more likely to be assholes

Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley set out to answer that age-old question: Why do some jerks succeed at work?

Berkeley study: People who gain power at work are not more likely to be assholes
[Photo: Hunters Race/Unsplash]

Good news: Being a selfish jackass doesn’t get you ahead.

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Bad news: It doesn’t hurt either.

These are the findings of a 14-year study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley set out to answer that age-old question, do assholes get into power because they’re assholes, or despite it? To do so, they tracked down people who had taken personality assessments as college or MBA students, and traced their mid-career workplace power and rank, while also gathering coworkers’ assessments of their personalities.

They found that workers known for selfishness, lying, and aggressiveness (fun!) were not more likely to have attained power than generous, trustworthy, and nice coworkers.

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But . . . the jerks were just as likely to be in positions of power. Specifically, the researchers found that intimidation helped their career climbs, though those gains were diminished by poor interpersonal relationships—making overall jerk-dom a neutral factor.

“The bad news here is that organizations do place disagreeable individuals in charge just as often as agreeable people,” says lead author Cameron Anderson, a professor of organization management at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. “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.”

Think toxic work environments, corrupt cultures, and failing organizations, he says. “Prior research is clear: Agreeable people in power produce better outcomes. My advice to managers would be to pay attention to agreeableness as an important qualification for positions of power and leadership.”

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