Who Gets Ahead in the Workplace?

Social Sciences3 MIN READ

New research shows jerks don’t have an advantage in attaining power

By Kardelen Koldas ’15
September 21, 2020

Jerks are all around us. They’re on the road and down the street. Sometimes they’re our work colleagues, and anyone who has ever worked with one must have wondered: does being a jerk get you ahead?

Prepare yourself, agreeable person, for some good news. Because a group of researchers, including Associate Professor of Psychology Christopher Soto, found that it doesn’t.

The team, led by Cameron Anderson from the University of California, Berkeley, carried out two longitudinal studies (recently published), where they measured more than 650 participants’ personality traits and then revisited them about 14 years later to assess their workplace power. The personality characteristics examined were agreeableness (how much one feels compassion, sympathy, respect, and trust towards others) and extraversion (how social, talkative, assertive, and energetic one is).

They aimed to show how these social personality traits related to people’s career success over time, explained Soto, who collected and managed data for the studies. He added that previous research revealed that extroverts obtain higher power and status at work than introverts, but there wasn’t consistent evidence on the role of agreeableness.

That changed with these studies.

While extroverts gained more power at work than introverts in this research too, agreeable and disagreeable people, both, on average, obtained equal status. “It was not the case that these selfish jerks got ahead of their agreeable coworkers,” he said, “but it also wasn’t the case that they were systematically at a disadvantage in that more agreeable people tended to end up in positions of greater power.”

“The disagreeable folks who are trying to get ahead using this one strategy are also shooting themselves in the foot by failing to use the more communal strategies.”

Associate Professor of Psychology Christopher Soto

The team had another key finding when they looked at what kind of behaviors, in relation to personality, led each participant to attain power. The researchers identified four behavioral strategies: dominant-aggressive (bullying others), political (building alliances with influential people), communal (caring for coworkers), and competent (motivating by skills).

They found that extroverts engaged in all four tactics to gain power. Disagreeable people, however, tended to engage in dominant-aggressive behavior, and the power they obtained through unpleasant behaviors was undermined by an unwillingness to build positive relationships with their colleagues.

“The disagreeable folks who are trying to get ahead using this one strategy,” he said, “are also shooting themselves in the foot by failing to use the more communal strategies.”

So, since research has repeatedly shown that personality traits predict important life outcomes, can we change to become more successful?

People’s personality traits, including extraversion and agreeableness, can and do gradually change, said Soto. But what causes personality change, or to what extent people can intentionally change their personality, are other questions at play.

In a recent paper (in press), Soto explored what it would mean to think about social, emotional, and behavioral skills as capabilities rather than personality traits. This way, it might be possible to develop ways to teach people those skills.

“It is probably pretty hard to change a disagreeable person into an agreeable person,” said Soto. “But it seems a lot more feasible to point out to them that these are the kinds of behaviors that are undermining your success in the workplace.”