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Selfish and combative people don’t actually get ahead at work

In popular culture, there’s an idea that lots of successful people are… well, not that nice. From Glengarry Glen Ross to The Apprentice, there’s a litany of bad bosses and aggressive success stories in film and television. The message seems to be that to get ahead you need to ditch the niceties and think about number one.

This stereotype might not reflect what’s really going on, however. In a new longitudinal studypublished in PNAS, a team from the University of California, Berkeley and Colby College tracked individuals over a fourteen year period, looking to see what became of those who were more disagreeable (not a cohort many of us would particularly long to be in).

They found that selfish, combative, and manipulative people have no real advantage at work — not because there are no benefits to such behaviour, but because its positive and negative impacts cancel each other out.

In the first study, Cameron Anderson and colleagues measured the Big Five personality traits of 457 participants during their university years. Then fourteen years later, when those participants were in the workforce, the team assessed participants’ power in the organisation, their view of their influence in the workplace, and organisational culture — how aggressive, criticising, political or selfish a participant felt it was.

Those who were most disagreeable at the first measurement did not have more power at the second, regardless of their age, gender or ethnicity — suggesting that selfishness and aggression do not result in higher levels of power or attainment.

In the second study, the team looked more closely at workplace behaviours in another group which had been followed in a similar way. Behaviours were grouped into four categories: dominant behaviour (e.g. “I am willing to bully others to achieve important goals”), political behaviour (e.g. “I build alliances with important people”), communal behaviour (e.g. “I care about others’ wellbeing”) and competent behaviour (e.g. “I make important contributions to my team’s success”). Importantly, coworkers also rated participants on these same workplace behaviours, as well power and organisational rank.

Coworker ratings largely agreed not only with one another but also with participants’ own ratings of themselves, suggesting that self-insight was fairly accurate. And the results showed that those who engaged in more dominant, political, communal and competent behaviour had higher levels of power. Personality-wise, people who were more extraverted 14 years previously engaged more in each of these categories, doing “everything right”, as the team put it, to attain higher power. Those with disagreeable personalities, however, only engaged in more dominant behaviours — and fewercommunal ones.

So whilst dominant behaviour might get you ahead in some ways, it’s clear that other, more prosocial, types of behaviour are also a key part of the process. If you’re a disagreeable person, being selfish might enhance your power to some extent, but failing to be generous and kind can cancel this out.

This might not be the case, however, in certain environments — if you work in an industry where prosocial behaviour is neither valued nor particularly useful, disagreeable people may be more likely to reach positions of power.

Future research could take the opposite approach: do people become more selfish and disagreeable once they’re in positions of power, and do those kinds of traits help them keep it? It may be that power really does corrupt — or we might find that it’s mere tropes around aggression that perpetuate the myth that nice guys finish last.

People with disagreeable personalities (selfish, combative, and manipulative) do not have an advantage in pursuing power at work

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest