Why Office Jerks Get Ahead

11.03.2016 2033

Nearly everyone has worked with a blowhard who has trouble getting along with the rest of the office. Now researchers say they have found evidence of when it hurts (and helps) to be a jerk in the workplace. In short, being a jerk helps get your ideas taken seriously in a situation that’s not conducive to working outside the box, but hinders employees at organizations where creative thinking is placed at a premium.

Steve Jobs was known for creating one of the most successful companies in the world - and for cursing at his employees. However, a new study claims that an arrogant and assertive personality helped make him successful. The study suggests individuals who are disagreeable or 'jerks' are more successful because they are better at getting their ideas heard in a group.

In the first part of the study, 200 students took a series of personality tests that measured how disagreeable they were and their ability to come up with original ideas. Then each participant spent 10 minutes creating a unique marketing campaign for the online campus of their university.

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Two professors conducted studies of mock marketing campaigns and chat rooms to test how ideas are shared in a business setting. The results of the two studies indicate what many of us know: That combative personalities help in many situations, but people often don’t know how to tone those tendencies down when they aren’t appropriate.

The experiments aimed to show (in a controlled environment) how being a "jerk" translates over into work context. In the first experiment, students on a university campus divided into groups of three to develop marketing campaigns for a university's online learning division. The second experiment consisted of controlled interactions within a chat room; both studies focused on how participants with more abrasive personality traits interacted with their more agreeable peers. When they homed in on the results, the researchers found that the more open-minded and creative thinking a group was, the less amenable they were to taking the ideas of a "jerk" seriously.

Being a jerk isn't advantageous for coming up with useful, original ideas, but it does seem to be advantageous for getting your ideas heard, especially in an environment consisting of pushy characters.

Yet in at least three situations, a touch of jerkiness can be helpful. The first is if your job, or some element of it, involves a series of onetime encounters in which reputational blowback has minimal effect. The second is in that evanescent moment after a group has formed but its hierarchy has not. (Think the first day of summer camp.) The third—is when the group’s survival is in question, speed is essential, and a paralyzing existential doubt is in the air. It was when things got truly desperate at Apple, its market share having shrunk to 4 percent, that the board invited Steve Jobs to return (Jobs then ousted most of those who had invited him back).

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Although, the distinction that needs to be made is this: Jerks, narcissists, and takers engage in behaviors to satisfy their own ego, not to benefit the group. Disagreeable givers aren’t getting off on being tough; they’re doing it to further a purpose.

So here’s what we know works.

Smile at the customer. Take the initiative. Tweak a few rules. Steal cookies for your colleagues. Don’t puncture the impression that you know what you’re doing. Let the other person fill the silence. Get comfortable with discomfort. Don’t privilege your own feelings. Ask who you’re really protecting. Be tough and humane. Challenge ideas, not the people who hold them. Don’t be a slave to type. And above all, don’t affix nasty, scatological labels to people.


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