Society Says It Pays to Be a Jerk: The Truth Is a Bit More Complicated

In a recent piece in the Atlantic, "Why It Pays to Be a Jerk," Jerry Useem grapples with the merits of bad behavior in the workplace. His questions—“Does it pay to be nice? Or is there an advantage to being a jerk?”—presumably bear great importance for seekers of advancement in any field. On the proverbial road to success, is it more effective to do favors, hold doors and share victories? Or do the authoritative and overconfident underlings ascend most quickly to the top?

An existing body of work that Useem terms “success literature” is far from reaching a consensus on the matter. There is an apparent wealth of the stuff, and its originators make claims that range from the Machiavellian (the most ruthless will win out) to the positively magnanimous.

Most of these authors, and Useem himself, generally distinguish between givers, whose altruistic bent increases their clout, and takers, their more selfish counterparts. It is to these cocksure businesspeople that Useem devotes most of his attention. Alternately termed asses, assholes, assholes bordering on psychopaths, narcissists, and run-of-the-mill jerks, many of these (mostly male) figures are well known to us. Steve Jobs and George S. Patton both make appearances, as do a multitude of other domineering bosses. As it turns out, their tactics can pan out, so long as the rewards spill over to their peers. 

The article zig-zags between relevant topics, covering rule-breaking, the centrality of prestige, the illusory qualities of self-confidence, and even the possible evolutionary origins of many of these dynamics. Ultimately, Useem arrives at a tentative middle ground that should be comforting to all but the most pathological narcissists and ass-kissing pushovers among us. Balance remains key. The term Useem uses is “disagreeable giver.” This construction comes from business scholar Adam Grant’s bookGive and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, which is widely cited in the piece. Disagreeable givers prioritize strong leadership, the ability to self-modulate and a tough, commanding attitude that benefits the collective good. 

See the article for extensive research and evidence of the anecdotal and empirical varieties. Until then, here’s what you need to know: there is no magic bullet. Nice guys don’t finish first, but neither do bullies. Aim to fall squarely between the bellicose head-honcho and the coffee-fetching chump. If you must be a jerk, be a flexible, generous jerk. Take initiative. Don’t be too nice. Advocate for yourself. Don’t forget to share the spoils. 


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