A new study shows why the idea that "nice guys finish last" is a harmful myth.
In his award-winning political biography The Path to Power, Robert Caro tells the story of Lyndon B. Johnson’s inexorable rise to national political influence. In Caro’s telling, Johnson makes his way to the top due to one thing: his unquenchable thirst for domination. It’s a gripping story—and, unfortunately, an all-too-familiar one. Bullying, toxic, abusive leaders show up in organizations of all kinds, and we have all heard of or encountered leaders who rose through the ranks using a similar brand of ruthlessness.
But Johnson’s story raises an important question: Is his path the only path to power, as Caro’s title would seem to suggest? A study of hundreds of career paths conducted over a 14-year period suggests that, at least as far as our workplaces are concerned, there is hope for a better way.
Does Disagreeableness Help People Gain Power at Work?
UC Berkeley researcher Cameron Anderson, along with colleagues Daron L. Sharps and Oliver P. John as well as Christopher J. Soto (Colby College), wanted to find out if being "disagreeable"—i.e. aggressive, selfish, and manipulative—helps individuals gain power at work. The researchers pointed out that although the question has long intrigued scholars as well as the general public, studies had never produced a definitive answer.
They began with a group of undergraduate and MBA students who were just about to enter the workforce. They surveyed these study participants in order to determine if they had disagreeable traits. Then they followed up 14 years later to see who had gained power at work and how much power they had gained. In order to measure participants' power, they used both reports from the participants themselves as well as ratings from the participants' peers.
They found that, contrary to common expectations, disagreeableness was not an advantage. They write, "Selfish, deceitful, and aggressive individuals were no more likely to attain power than were generous, trustworthy, and nice individuals." This held true for all kinds of people, cultures, and contexts. It was true of men as well as women and for all ages and racial/ethnic groups. It also held true in a variety of workplaces at both small and large companies.
Anderson and his colleagues did find that disagreeable people’s tendency to be intimidating could sometimes help them gain power. But disagreeable people put themselves at a disadvantage in other ways. Disagreeable people "engaged in less communal and generous behavior," and as a result, they ultimately had worse relationships and weaker networks. These disadvantages appeared to cancel out any advantage that came from intimidation for most disagreeable people.
Put it in Practice
Create organizational structures that reward kindness.
Anderson's study shows that you don't have to be selfish, deceitful, or combative to get ahead. But it also reveals that, as the researchers put it, "nasty individuals reach the top just as often as nice individuals." In other words, disagreeable people can reach the top, and far too often, they do.
But leaders have the power to shape the norms within their organizations differently. They can take action by working intentionally to hire, retain, and promote people who seek to gain success by helping others. And they can check their assumptions that highly dominant or assertive people are natural born leaders.
Combine kindness with assertiveness.
Anderson's study confirmed what many other studies have found: a certain degree of assertiveness does help individuals gain power. But an assertive person is not necessarily combative, manipulative, or selfish.
A study conducted by Jia Hu (Ohio State), along with Zhen Zhang (Arizona State), Kaifeng Jiang (Ohio State), and Wansi Chen (East China University of Science and Technology) also found that assertive people tend to be well-liked and tend to emerge naturally as leaders. However, Hu and her colleagues show it's possible to have too much assertiveness. They write, "Moderate levels of assertiveness allow individuals to show sufficient confidence and initiative without appearing too controlling or arrogant." They also found that a desire to help others succeed (prosocial motivation) is especially crucial for helping assertiveness translate into positive, rather than negative, reactions from one's peers.
Debunk the disagreeable leader myth.
Anderson and his colleagues write, “when people see a disagreeable person in power, they might conclude that being disagreeable will help them attain power and, in turn, behave more disagreeably. If such a belief is inaccurate, it is important to empirically dispel this myth.” While it’s clearly the case that disagreeable people can gain power, Anderson’s study suggests disagreeableness is not the only or even the main way that people gain power. Once we recognize that a more positive path to power is possible, we can reinforce it rather than other, more destructive paths.
These findings support the general idea that there are at least two very different paths to power. One common path is the path of dominance and intimidation. But there is another path, one that is about earned respect and admiration. The good news is that those who choose the second path don’t consign themselves to a life of powerlessness. The better, more ethical path can be an effective one, too.