Does It Pay to Be a Jerk?

It doesn’t always pay to be aggressive in the workplace. 

Posted Oct 12, 2020

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
Source: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Last week, watching Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly interrupt Senator Kamala Harris on the debate stage, twice as much as she interrupted him, was an all too visceral experience for women. Ten times he spoke over and cut into her allotted time, giving him three additional minutes of speaking, even though they were meant to have equal time. 

Predictably, these interruptions were spliced into short videos and memes, destined for rabid social media sharing and shaming. Who among us hasn’t experienced this kind of aggressive interaction, being cut off or talked over by an annoying work colleague? But to see the vice president be that guy (and get called out for it) was wholly unexpected and at once cringe-worthy yet validating. 

Pence is part of a larger problem to be sure. Numerous studies have found that men generally interrupt women more than the other way around. This behavior is even reported at the highest levels of the Supreme Court, where researchers found that in 2015, more than 65 percent of interruptions were directed at the three female justices on the bench (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan).

How unfair, but also, as Stephanie Tanner aptly puts it, how rude. Indeed it was Pence’s performance that got me thinking about my own experiences with workplace etiquette and how I have always marveled at the illogic of openly obnoxious people not only keeping their jobs but somehow also weaseling their way into positions of power. 

It begs the question, does it pay to be a jerk? 

In 2015, writer Jerry Useem sought to answer this question in The Atlantic, where he ultimately conceded that yes, it sort of does. A case in point: Steve Jobs. Shortly after Walter Isaacson’s biography of the tech mogul, Steve Jobs, was published, many wondered if being a jerk was a prerequisite for success. Stanford management professor Robert Sutton remembers having 10 conversations with CEOs who asked, “Don’t you think I should be more of an asshole?” 

He also cited a University of Amsterdam study that found obnoxious and overconfident behavior made people seem powerful, which in turn, had the effect of actually making them more powerful.  

For non-jerks, these findings are not too comforting, but a new study at the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business does offer a scant glimmer of hope for those of us who are sick of seeing their jerky counterparts get ahead. 

A more than decade-long survey of university students who graduated and later entered the workforce found that “those with selfish, deceitful and aggressive personality traits were not more likely to have attained power than those who were generous, trustworthy and generally nice.” 

Strictly speaking, this doesn’t mean that aggressive people don’t get promoted or into positions of power—obviously, they do—rather, the findings show that this behavior doesn’t help their climb up the corporate ladder. Moreover, the initial power boost they might get from being overconfident eventually gets canceled out due to their negative relationships with others. 

While this isn’t great news, as one study researcher admits that “jerks gain power at the same rate as anyone else, even though jerks in power can do serious damage to the organization,” it's better than knowing that jerks always have an advantage. 

Speaking of, did being a jerk pay off for Pence at the debate?

Most polls would say the answer is a resounding no. According to FiveThirtyEight’s analysis, Senator Harris scored about 20 percentage points higher on both her performance and policies than the VP, making her the debate’s winner. It’s not clear how much (if any) of Pence’s rude behavior lost him points, but it certainly didn’t help him gain any.

But for an even better litmus test on whether jerks win at work, tune in to find out what happens after Nov. 3.