It might be because obnoxious leaders tend to stand out more, says Cameron Anderson, a professor of organizational behavior at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and the lead author of a recent study on the topic.
“When we are presented with someone in power who’s a jerk … it sticks out to us. It’s very salient,” Anderson said. “And I think we notice those (people) much more than we do people in power who are nice — those people kind of blend into the background. Examples of people in power who are just awful human beings are more available in people’s minds.”
In the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Anderson and her colleagues found that people with disagreeable personalities (selfish, combative, and manipulative) were more likely to be dominant and aggressive, but less communal toward colleagues.
“What our findings suggest is that if disagreeable people had been nicer … to their colleagues, they might’ve had a leg up in the competition for power,” Anderson said.
And the ability to form and maintain relationships is crucial for a leader’s success.
“Everyone needs allies to be powerful,” Anderson added. “Very rarely can people have power and not have a strong set of alliances and a strong network. … And so for disagreeable people, that erosion of their alliances is a killer.”
The study’s bottom line: “Selfish, deceitful, and aggressive individuals were no more likely to attain power than were generous, trustworthy, and nice individuals.”
This is good news for the non-jerks among us who want to up their chances of career success. Here are a few ways to do that:
Focus on soft skills
At its core, business is about relationships. No matter your job function or title, to succeed, you must interact with other people.
Soft skills – like collaboration, adaptability, and the ability to connect—refer to personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with others. Emotional intelligence is rooted in them, business leaders swear by them, and they remain in high demand.
Among them, empathy—the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things from their point of view—is perhaps the most powerful because it shifts your perspective, facilitates understanding, and breeds kindness and gratitude.
Be more charismatic
Charisma isn’t just about your likability or ability to tell a good story. Its real power has less to do with you and everything to do with how you make others feel.
We’re attracted to those who give us their undivided focus and leave us feeling seen and heard; those who dare to be vulnerable and genuinely want to connect and share and treat us with respect and kindness. And in return, we offer our unwavering attention and trust.
People are attracted to those who smile because it signals positivity, which is infectious. Smiling tells others that you’re approachable and kind, making you more likable. This means you’ll also have an easier time connecting with others, whether it’s fostering team collaboration or forging a new business partnership.
Smiling also inspires confidence and trust. When leaders smile, it sends a message that they are capable. Even if you’re not feeling totally confident, smiling and maintaining a positive attitude can make those around you believe in your abilities and trustworthiness. A study from Penn State University confirmed this and found that people who smile appear to be more competent.
Listen more, talk less
Excellent listening skills improve relationships and communication, foster collaboration, and give leaders a competitive advantage over those who speak more than they listen.
Active listening demonstrates respect, builds trust, and makes people feel valued. It creates a virtuous cycle: we naturally gravitate toward those who listen to us, and when we feel heard, we open up and share. Active listening also allows leaders to learn about things both good and bad, so they can discover new ideas and opportunities as well as detect—and get creative about solving—potential problems when they’re still in their infancy.
Four words: “It’s not about you”
There are four words that, when acknowledged and embraced, have the power to change your results completely: It’s not about you.
Far too often, we assume that everyone thinks, behaves, and communicates the same way we do. Worse, we make the mistake of focusing our sales pitches and communication about us, rather than our intended audiences.
The finest leaders understand that by putting their egos aside, placing others first, and adopting a service mindset, they can improve their communication and connection, establish trust, deepen relationships, and build business.