Let’s say you’ve come up with a great idea at work, and you really feel that your idea can help your company, is it better to be a jerk or a nice guy to get that idea pushed forward?
One of the running debates we hear all the time is, do you have to be a jerk to succeed or can nice guys actually finish first? I’m sure you can immediately think of public figures who are notorious for their sometimes negative behaviors but actually get ahead in their career. For example, Steve Jobs was known as someone who shouted and cursed at employees and made derogatory comments about their work. But, he was successful, right?
Well, you might assume that these unlikable people are successful because they're smarter and more creative than their more likeable peers. But, according to research by some of my colleagues, this may not be the case.
In a recent study, Hunter and Cushenbery examined just how well individuals were able to generate and express their ideas for a particular problem. The study had about 200 undergraduate students complete several different personality measures. The students were also assessed on creativity and cognitive ability to get their baseline abilities. As part of the study, all participants were asked to work independently for 10 minutes and come up with a solution to a marketing problem. The researchers then put the participants into groups of three and asked them to spend 20 minutes to come up with a marketing plan together.
The results showed that disagreeable people were much more likely to have their ideas used in the final product. Meaning, those who tend to be argumentative, egotistical, aggressive, and headstrong, pushed their ideas forward. But, interestingly, the results showed that disagreeableness had nothing to do with how creative students were while generating ideas on the own.
In a follow-up study, the researchers looked to see whether disagreeable people would fare better or worse in certain group situations. This time, they had about 300 students spend time alone coming up with ideas for the "dorm room of the future." Then the participants were seated in front of a computer and told that they would be interacting with two other participants in an online chat room to discuss their ideas. What the participants didn't know was that their chat partners were actually working for the researchers and were instructed to give either supportive or unsupportive feedback to the participants' ideas.
Consistent with the first study, disagreeableness didn't have an effect on their ability to come up with creative ideas. But, disagreeable students were more likely to share their ideas and this was even more so the case when their fake partners had smart/creative ideas and gave negative feedback. Meaning, the jerks weren't phased by the possibility that someone wouldn't like their ideas. In unsupportive environments, they were much more likely to push forward their ideas.
So, what does this all mean? According to this research, jerks are not necessarily smarter or more creative. Instead, they just won't back down in the face of creative or tough coworkers. They’ll push their idea whether it’s good or not.
In selection or promotion, it’s important to keep this in mind. If you are looking for a leader who will bring creative ideas to the table, don’t only focus on those who get their ideas heard or pushed forward. While these individuals may have the biggest voice during a group exercise or role play exercise, they may not turn out being the best individuals for the job.