3 Ways Being a Jerk at Work Pays Off

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You don’t want a reputation as the office bully, but it turns out there are some attributes of narcissistic or Machiavellian personalities that could give your career a boost. 

Social scientists aren’t just looking for a silver lining; they theorize that there must be some evolutionary benefit to being a jerk. The trouble is, those shrewd or sneaky behaviors that kept our caveman ancestors alive don’t translate as well to the 21st-century water cooler.

But there are things we can learn from the blowhards, braggarts and backstabbers we have to deal with, and there are even a few behaviors that, when decoupled from the rest of a toxic personality, can give you a leg up on the job. Here are three instances where the office jerks have an edge.

People think they’re more creative. In a review of the literature about narcissists in the workplace, Binghamton University assistant professor of organizational behavior Seth Spain finds, “Narcissists were rated as more creative when they had a chance to pitch their ideas, largely because of their enthusiasm.” The thing is, they actually aren’t necessarily more creative. Narcissists’ inflated sense of self-esteem means they have total confidence that their ideas are better than anybody else’s, and they throw them out there without the hesitation that can strike the rest of us.

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They’re better negotiators. People with both self-centered narcissistic and conniving Machiavellian personalities are willing to push harder and be more combative to get what they want. “You’re negotiating all day long. We’re always operating in a world with competing interests — whose needs are met, whose ideas are used,” says Dana Carney, a University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business assistant professor who co-wrote a new study about narcissism’s role in successful negotiation. Empathy has its place in life (and in society) but it shouldn’t erode your bargaining power. “[Empathy] means two different things. On one hand it’s the ability to read a situation. On the other hand, it’s the automatic tendency to respond to them,” Carney says. Worrying your boss will take it personally if you want a raise or think you’re a better candidate for a plum assignment can keep you from being successful. “Narcissists stay cold. they don’t get that carried away with emotion.

They’re good schmoozers. “Machiavellians are proficient at forming political alliances and cultivating a charismatic image,” Spain writes. They’re so focused on the end goal of getting what they want that they’re able to flip a mental switch and turn on the superficial charm. Although manipulative types might be faking warmth or camaraderie to achieve an underhanded goal, it is an effective strategy, at least in the short-term. “In a study of 39 U.S. presidents, ratings of Machiavellianism were positively associated with not only charisma but also rated performance,” Spain says. (Just don’t drop that new work friendship as soon as you get what you were after.)

4 comments
AngelaJShirley
AngelaJShirley

Your article title was certainly catchy! I was not sure if I wanted to waste my time with reading it, but glad I did read it. Well written and presented both the positive and negative of certain workplace behaviors. I was also reminded that these behaviors could be used outside of the workplace. Too many times we allow our "emotions" to dictate how we "react" to people or circumstances. Thanks for a well written article - it certainly helped me to see some things in a different light. Career Counseling

DavidConroy
DavidConroy

We use buzzwords like Teamwork, then reward solo runs from individualists.

We say we want foresight, then promote on the basis of last week's highest profile sale.

We want people to back each other up, then give a bonus to the jerk who palmed off his nuisance work to schmooze the big account.

We say it's all about ability, and hire the idiot who looks cutest.

We say we're a meritocracy, and give the best golfer a seat on the board.

We love workforce diversity, then hire the guy who looks most like the guy who just got headhunted.

Call me an old cynic, but I didn't fall over with surprise reading this.