Paul L. Caron

Sunday, February 11, 2024

WSJ: You Don’t Have To Be A Jerk To Succeed In Law And Life

Following up on my previous post, A No-Jerks Rule Can Make Your Business (And Law School) Thrive:  Wall Street Journal Saturday Essay, You Don’t Have to Be a Jerk to Succeed, by Yascha Mounk (Johns Hopkins; Google Scholar; Author, The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time (2023)):

The JerkThe message sent by popular culture is clear: If you want to get ahead, you’d better be a jerk.

Take one of the most celebrated shows of the moment: “Succession,” which just won the Emmy for best television drama for the third year in a row. In the series, everyone is a jerk to everyone else all of the time. ...

Everyone who has ever worked in an office knows the type: The go-getter who is desperate to rise through the ranks and is perfectly willing to act like a complete jerk to do so. He—and, yes, it usually is a he—constantly talks up his own accomplishments. He belittles his colleagues. Perhaps he even refuses certain tasks that are assigned to him because he considers them to be below his true level of talent or seniority or qualification.

The office jerk’s core assumption—whether conscious or unconscious—is very simple: A lot of powerful people are jerks. I want to be powerful. So I should act like a jerk. But is the assumption that being a jerk will make you successful actually true? ...

It makes intuitive sense that jerks may enjoy certain advantages in creative fields. When everyone is wrong about something, it takes a willingness to make yourself unpopular to point out that the emperor has no clothes. And the people who are willing to make themselves unpopular are often uninterested in the feelings or interests of others in other contexts as well. So it’s little wonder that some famous disrupters—like Travis Kalanick (the founder of Uber) and Mark Baum (the character portrayed in “The Big Short” as a pivotal investor who bet against subprime mortgages in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis)—were infamous for acting pushy, strong-willed and supercilious.

But it is important not to jump to conclusions from a few salient examples. As it turns out, other research suggests that, in most contexts, being disagreeable does not help you to get ahead—and may even be a serious disadvantage.

To rigorously answer the question of whether being a jerk makes people more successful, Cameron Anderson, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of California at Berkeley, decided to run an elaborate test. He measured the personalities of 457 college students and then followed their career trajectory over a period of 14 years. What he found was surprising: Contrary to expectations, disagreeable people were no more successful in pursuing power in the workplace than their more agreeable colleagues.

As Anderson and three of his colleagues explain in a 2020 paper in the journal PNAS [People With Disagreeable Personalities (Selfish, Combative, and Manipulative) Do Not Have an Advantage in Pursuing Power at Work], disagreeable people did have one apparent advantage: “Disagreeable individuals were intimidating, which would have elevated their power.” But the advantage derived from their domineering behavior was offset by a concomitant disadvantage: “They also had poorer interpersonal relationships at work” and this offset “any possible power advantage their behavior might have provided.”

Anderson’s takeaway was unequivocal: “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.” ...

In short, powerful people do often act like jerks. But this is because being powerful can turn you into a jerk, not because being a jerk will make you more powerful. ...

Powerful people can get away with being jerks much more easily. But it does not follow that being a jerk will help to make you powerful. And when you forget this lesson, you are not only making the life of your co-workers miserable but possibly sabotaging your own well-being.

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