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Why Success Brings Out the Worst in People

Why do assholes always seem to get ahead in life? It’s probably not why you think

It’s a cliché that brilliant, successful people are often difficult jerks. Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, but he also enjoyed electrocuting animals. Cristiano Ronaldo is a world-class soccer player who happens to be a preening ass on the field.

Steve Jobs gave us Apple and gave everyone else a dose of tyrannical evisceration anytime he didn’t like his hotel room or how his smoothie was made. Elon Musk fired a longtime assistant for daring to ask for a raise. This behavior is par for the course for a number of tech giants.

So which came first: the jerk, or the success?

Past research told us that being a jerk goes hand-in-hand with being great at corporate or entrepreneurial success. The so-called “dark triad” — psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism — makes people great at exploiting other people to get ahead. Insiders who’ve seen entrepreneurial successes and failures by the hundreds argue that being a volatile asshole is just what it takes to parkour up the ladder, precisely because the less you give a shit about others, the better you are at taking big risks and getting shit done. Complementary research on the assholery of rich people supports this idea: The less you need other people’s resources, the less you have to play nice or cooperate with them to get it done.

But an increasing amount of newer research says rich jerks get ahead not because of their jerkiness, but in spite of it.

Christine Porath, who studies incivility in the workplace, has discovered that successful jerks are more the exception than the rule. Her research finds that workers are more likely to recommend a civil person over an uncivil one. That the more agreeable someone is, the more likely they are to be included in networking opportunities. More civil people are more likely to be thought of as leaders, too. And in surveys rating the most admired characteristics in leaders, fairness and civility were tops.

A new piece at Harvard Business Review also challenges the idea that it’s the jerkiness that leads to the success. Psychologist Darko Lovric and professor of business psychology Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argue that the image of the difficult successful person is so pervasive, we mistakenly think it drives the success itself. Instead, what they’ve found is that the success is what brings out the jerk.

It’s not that the Elon Musks, Howard Hugheses and Steve Jobses were necessarily so nice before they achieved greatness. It’s that the great achievement allowed them to become as jerky as they wanted to be.

“What is initially a strength — thinking differently and being ready to defy social convention — can become a weakness once all checks on one’s behavior are removed,” they write. This happens to some successful people because a combination of four psychological factors that likely already exist within them, and are now merely justified: overconfidence, narcissism, isolation and reduced self-control.

Overconfidence means they now over-prioritize their own point of view and abilities. The celebrity that comes with success leads to narcissism, which bestows an exaggerated sense of self. Isolation is that flattering inner circle of yes-men and -women with whom successful people often surround themselves because they could probably never handle being criticized in the first place. With enough success, they don’t have to handle it at all. And the reduced self-control is the sense that the successful person is basically too big to fail, so they can lash out with abandon because there’s no consequences for doing so.

In their view, every successful person will wrestle with these threats — this Mr. Hyde, as they put it — to their civility. The trouble is, of course, the very skills it would take to avoid this fate are in short supply the higher up you get: being self-aware, humble, open to feedback and teachable.

In other words, no, you don’t have to be a jerk to be successful. And being successful won’t make you a jerk. What is increasingly clear, however, is that the most successful jerks were probably jerks from the start.