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Most of us have worked with someone unpleasant at some point. Maybe they were keen to blame their mistakes on other people, or throw their peers under the bus — so to speak — to get ahead.
Business has long been thought of as a dog-eat-dog world, dominated by those willing to trample on their colleagues to climb up the career ladder. And although there is a greater awareness of workplace wellbeing in general, many companies still encourage a “me first” corporate culture. But whether being selfish actually helps you progress in your career is under debate.
Recent research by the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business tracked more than 400 people from college to graduate school, to see how they were doing in their careers 14 years later.
The researchers conducted two studies of people who had completed personality assessment as undergraduate or MBA students across three universities. Then a decade later, they asked about their power and rank in their workplaces, as well as the culture in their workplaces. To make sure they got a fair assessment, the researchers also spoke to the participants’ colleagues about their rank and behaviour.
The results were surprising. Instead of bullying their way to the top of their fields, those with selfish, deceitful, and aggressive personality traits were no more likely to have more power than those who were nice.
That isn’t to say people who are horrible don’t reach positions of power, as anyone who has had an awful boss will attest. It’s just that they didn’t get there any quicker than pleasant people — and being selfish, manipulative and sneaky didn’t help.
Importantly, any power boost they did get was counteracted by their poor relationships with other people.
“I was surprised by the consistency of the findings. No matter the individual or the context, disagreeableness did not give people an advantage in the competition for power," said Professor Cameron Anderson, who co-authored the study.
“The bad news here is that organisations do place disagreeable individuals in charge just as often as agreeable people. In other words, they allow jerks to gain power at the same rate as anyone else, even though jerks in power can do serious damage to the organisation.”
One of the key problems is that a selfish boss or employee can significantly contribute to a toxic culture in the workplace. Moreover, there is ample research to suggest that a toxic environment isn’t just unpleasant, but negatively affects the bottom line too.
A 2015 Harvard Business School study of more than 60,000 employees found that “a superstar performer — one that models desired values and delivers consistent performance” brings in more than $5,300 (£4,163) in cost savings to a company. Avoiding a toxic hire, or firing one swiftly, delivers $12,500 in cost savings.
Toxic people affected productivity among other workers, impacted their performance on the whole and led to other employees deliberately spending less time at work. On top of this, they also contributed to other staff members quitting and caused damage to businesses’ brands and reputations.
“At their most harmless, these workers could simply be a bad fit, leading to premature termination and a costly search for and training of a new worker,” write researchers Michael Housman and Dylan Minor. “However, more damaging to the firm is a worker who engages in behaviour that adversely affects fellow workers or other company assets; we label this type of worker toxic.”
But what exactly is it that makes an employee toxic? According to both studies, there are a number of traits — including people who abuse their positions of power, prioritise their own self-interest, people who are aggressive and intimidating, bullies, gossips and those who simply won’t work with other people.
“Disagreeableness is a relatively stable aspect of personality that involves the tendency to behave in quarrelsome, cold, callous, and selfish ways,” Anderson says.
“My advice to managers would be to pay attention to agreeableness as an important qualification for positions of power and leadership. Prior research is clear: agreeable people in power produce better outcomes.”