Bad News: Being a Jerk Doesn’t Really Work


Is it better to be feared than loved? Do nice guys ever finish first? Are jerks really on to something? And if they are, isn’t it really our fault if they get ahead? What is wrong with us, anyway, that we would let that happen? These questions and more now have answers that you can take directly up the corporate ladder.

Ha, not really. Sorry, nuance haters! Get back in line. In a piece at the Atlantic called “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk,” we learn that, sure, what the hay, being a dick does pay sometimes, and yet, other times it backfires. Turns out that this is a power that must be wielded with sophistication and grace—something often in short supply for the average jerkwad.

Author Jerry Useem pores over the wisdom that has been jerking our chains for eternity on the question of which is the better way to go about laying claim to power, all said: Darkness or light? Good or evil? Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker? (Um, the answer is Han Solo, because he’s better looking and more clever.)

Anyway, Useem writes:

Of all the issues that preoccupy the modern mind—Nature or nurture? Is there life in outer space? Why can’t America field a decent soccer team?—it’s hard to think of one that has attracted so much water-cooler philosophizing yet so little scientific inquiry. Does it pay to be nice? Or is there an advantage to being a jerk?

Who hasn’t wondered this when staring up the corporate ladder? Should you cultivate some kind of enigmatic, off-putting badass mystique or just get in there and be a good, nice, hardworking person?

Science can’t help you. There are studies, books, and aphorisms pointing in either direction, most of which, Useem notes, are “long on certainty, short on proof.” Recently, though, Wharton professor Adam Grant looked at the data and published Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, which posits that across all disciplines there is, in fact, a recurring pattern: It’s the givers, not the takers, who occupy the top slots. But they also occupy the bottom ones, because who else would all those dicks manipulate on the way up except the suckers? If nothing else, dicks are resilient. They will continue to asexually reproduce into infinity like starfish at an asshole business conference whether it’s good for them or us or not.

Plus, assholes want to live.

Since Steve Jobs was published in 2011, “I think I’ve had 10 conversations where CEOs have looked at me and said, ‘Don’t you think I should be more of an asshole?’ ” says Robert Sutton, a professor of management at Stanford, whose book, The No Asshole Rule, nonetheless includes a chapter titled “The Virtues of Assholes.”

If you’re a CEO, let’s be honest, you’re probably already a little bit of an asshole, but the point is that their asshole games work! Useem cites studies that found the following things:

  • Being semi-obnoxious can translate into real power
  • Appearing confident will make others think you’re confident
  • Acting like the smartest person in the room will actually trick others into believing it

Get this: People will even shell out more of their money in luxury retail transactions if you make them feel shitty first. But there are some caveats: They have to really really be into the brand, and you have to really really look the part. (Studies also confirms this makes both of you look like assholes.)

“We believe we want people who are modest, authentic, and all the things we rate positively” to be our leaders, says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a business professor at Stanford. “But we find it’s all the things we rate negatively”—like immodesty—“that are the best predictors of higher salaries or getting chosen for a leadership position.”

Or maybe we just want the illusion of modesty and authenticity with a dick who can shit done underneath it. In part, we expect that anyone who is both driven and ambitious to be more suited to the role of a leader. We are a hierarchical people, and there’s something about a top dog showing up telling how to align ourselves that will have most people lining up without question. We perpetuate this reality because there’s also something mesmerizing—fictional or not—about someone who sails in and makes it look easy. Who commands a room. Who moves with a kind of certainty.

Is it just a question of the dickiest, er, squeakiest, wheel getting the grease? Or is it that deep inside our insecure, sniveling little psyches, we believe leaders are people who are better than us, know more, don’t really need our insight, and are basically doing us a favor by letting us exist at all? My armchair pop-psych radar says it is the latter. We’re all in this together.

So let’s all be jerks?

Not so fast. Useem mentions that there isn’t a lot of research that indicates what actually separates the successful jerk from the failed one. In the same way that givers are at the top and the bottom of performance clusters, so are narcissists/assholes/psychopaths. And what gets an asshole up the flagpole, studies show, is just as easily “kissing up and kicking down”—being a dick to those below you but not above you—but also being openly dickish to pretty much anyone. Be an asshole at your risk.

The thing is: Being a dick depends on knowing when and how and to whom to be a dick, and the right conditions under which to break the rules to get ahead. This is exacerbated by the way corporate environments measure success. Useem:

Did the product you helped launch succeed because of you, or because of your brilliant No. 2, or your lucky market timing, or your competitor’s errors, or the foundation your predecessor laid, or because you were (as the management writer Jim Collins puts it) a socket wrench that happened to fit that one job? Difficult to know, really. So we rely on proxies—superficial cues for competence that we take and mistake for the real thing.

We put faith in people over systems, and the realities of how good ideas get through or success actually happens is ever obscured. This is a perfect opportunity for the asshole climber: Being smart enough to look responsible for your team’s success telegraphs being talented enough to have caused it. Research also backs this up: Useem cites a study where just pretending to know about a subject was as good as knowing in terms of how a partner rated you. “Being the first to blurt out an answer, right or wrong, was taken as a sign of superior quantitative skill,” he notes.

Most of us have seen this firsthand. The years I spent in corporate financial environments taught me something incredibly valuable, if not disturbing: Being able to make a decision at all is sometimes far more important and will be far more valued in a work environment than making the right decision. Paralysis, overthinking, hemming and hawing, choking in the moment were all things I watched ostensibly more informed, level-headed people do. They were valued, but they weren’t leaders. Sometimes what was needed was a decider. For better or for worse.

This is probably why corporate environments love exactly the kinds of go-getters who seem to have a clear vision, and exactly why those visions fail plenty of times, but the person remains. And yet, as leaders go, it’s still far more infectious and fun to work with someone who appears to know what they are doing, as long as they usually actually do. Even if to some extent the jerk is faking it until he makes it, he will likely come to believe he possesses the skill he presents, and he may even eventually possess it. Initiative, Useem notes, may itself be a form of competence.

Oh, and I say he here throughout because all this jerk-off success is less likely to happen to women. Useem writes:

To summarize: being a jerk is likely to fail you, at least in the long run, if it brings no spillover benefits to the group; if your professional transactions involve people you’ll have to deal with over and over again; if you stumble even once; and finally, if you lack the powerful charismatic aura of a Steve Jobs. (It’s also marginally more likely to fail you, several studies suggest, if you’re a woman.)

Or you’ll just drop out of the race sooner because you’ve been worn down. A new study shows that companies drain women’s ambition in a staggeringly short two years by constantly failing to recognize their jerk leadership potential.

But in the end, being a jerk comes down to highly specific environments and knowing when to whip it out. If, as he writes, being a jerk will fail most people most of the time, then only a real asshole would think that he was not most people, that he was special. But hey, if you’re good at things like that, you’re most certainly an asshole, but you aren’t stupid.

Steve Martin in The Jerk. Image via Getty.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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