Why being a workplace jerk pays off — until it doesn't

Ruthless ascensions of the corporate ladder have been popularized — and glamorized — in movies and TV shows. But being a jerk at work will not always work in one's favor, The Wall Street Journal reported Feb. 1. 

"From 'American Psycho' to 'The Wolf of Wall Street,' egotism and narcissistic personality disorder are practically depicted as the precondition for personal success," according to the Journal

The image of a stop-at-nothing go-getter is not only present on the screen. Most offices have a jerk: someone who wants to be top dog, touts their own accomplishments and takes credit for or diminishes the work of others. It is true that many powerful people behave this way — so some people who crave power behave that way, too. 

Research on whether the jerk always comes out on top is conflicting. 

A 2014 study out of State College-based Pennsylvania State University and Stony Brook (N.Y.) University asked 200 students to come up with ideas for an online marketing campaign, then work together to choose the best concepts. The disagreeable students — "more argumentative, egotistical, aggressive, headstrong and hostile" types — were more likely to be selected, according to researchers. 

One reason for this is strong-willed individuals tend to be less concerned about popularity and are thus more willing to advocate for their own work, point out flaws in groupthink and assume the role of lead devil's advocate. 

But hostility yields no advantage in the long run, according to a 14-year study conducted by Cameron Anderson, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of California, Berkeley. He assessed the personalities of 457 college students, then followed their career trajectories over nearly one and a half decades. 

According to Dr. Anderson's research, disagreeable people were not more successful in achieving workplace prowess. Although these individuals were "intimidating, which would have elevated their power," they had poorer interpersonal relationships at work, which offset any potential advantage their perceived power might have provided, Dr. Anderson and his colleagues concluded in a 2020 research paper. 

"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," according to the report. 

Still, the question stands: Why are powerful people more inclined to act like jerks? 

A 1993 study in the Journal of Business Ethics found that typically, power comes before practice. Success gives people "unrestrained control of organizational resources," allowing them to feel invincible — and perhaps above common courtesies, according to the report. 

Of the protagonists in "Succession" and "Wolf of Wall Street" — the ones you might want to embody but would not want to call a colleague — it is important to remember they always fall from grace. 

"They are the quintessential anti-heroes," the Journal reported. "Despite all of their wealth and power, they are a model for how not to lead one's life."

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