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Being disagreeable in the workplace won't get you ahead

Updated: Sep 3

In a study published yesterday, a team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found that being disagreeable in the workplace does not get you ahead (the abstract can be found at the bottom of this page; a summary here: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/aug/31/getting-ahead-isnt-a-nasty-business-us-study-reveals; and the full study (behind a paywall) here: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2005088117).


It turns out that whilst aggressive, selfish or manipulative behaviours might help you get "success" across many industries, the effect is cancelled out by what you lose by not engaging in communal and generous behaviours.


This has been debated for centuries, for instance Niccolò Machiavelli in the 16th century became famous for his philosophy that in politics evil manipulators do better. In the 20th century, Game Theory emerged from the work of John Nash, who suggested that humans were in aggressive competition with each other and the best course of action was to try to get one over on people (see the 2007 Adam Curtis documentary Fuck You Buddy for how this flawed idea evolved and influences western society today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okUydGWdmAA).


So it's nice to have some good evidence to support the idea that being disagreeable at work doesn't help you! Even more than that, in an emergency medical context, incivility has been shown to reduce a team's performance (Rishkin et al, 2015; https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/136/3/487).


More generally, the relationships you have with other people at work, rather than attaining one goal after another over the course of your career might actually be the most important thing. I was interested to see that the successful cityboy, Ray Dalio, made a video reflecting on his own career and life in which he comes to the conclusion that the journey itself "and the wellbeing of the people alongside" became more important than his own individual success at attaining one goal after another. You can see the full video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9XGUpQZY38&t=3s, or skip to the end (after 26 minutes) for his reflections on working as a team.


So the next time you're on the receiving end of negative workplace behaviours, it will perhaps be good to know that those behaviours aren't helping the person displaying them and that they may be missing the whole point!


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People with disagreeable personalities (selfish, combative, and manipulative) do not have an advantage in pursuing power at work

Anderson et al, 2020; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2005088117


Abstract


Does being disagreeable—that is, behaving in aggressive, selfish, and manipulative ways—help people attain power? This question has long captivated philosophers, scholars, and laypeople alike, and yet prior empirical findings have been inconclusive. In the current research, we conducted two preregistered prospective longitudinal studies in which we measured participants’ disagreeableness prior to entering the labor market and then assessed the power they attained in the context of their work organization ∼14 y later when their professional careers had unfolded. Both studies found disagreeable individuals did not attain higher power as opposed to extraverted individuals who did gain higher power in their organizations. Furthermore, the null relationship between disagreeableness and power was not moderated by individual differences, such as gender or ethnicity, or by contextual variables, such as organizational culture. What can account for this null relationship? A close examination of behavior patterns in the workplace found that disagreeable individuals engaged in two distinct patterns of behavior that offset each other’s effects on power attainment: They engaged in more dominant-aggressive behavior, which positively predicted attaining higher power, but also engaged in less communal and generous behavior, which predicted attaining less power. These two effects, when combined, appeared to cancel each other out and led to a null correlation between disagreeableness and power.

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