Most have heard the old adage, “nice guys finish last.” Or how about “you can’t play it safe if you want to get ahead.” And somewhere along the line, many of us received the message that we had to be ruthless to climb to the top of an organization. So is it true? Do nice guys finish last? Do we have to break some rules to get ahead? Is being a jerk our only option to get to the corner office? In short, the answer is yes and no.
While it might be socially unacceptable to call out the realities of what it takes to move forward in your career; there is now a great deal of science that backs up what some consider negative behavior as a catalyst to get ahead.
And of course, there is some negative behavior that will label you as unethical or worse. No one wants a reputation like that. Or maybe you do. So where’s the line? And how do you keep from crossing it?
And what about our human desire to collaborate? How about our innate empathy towards others? How does that fit into the mix?
At the root of it, we are all cave men/women. In our infancy as a species, it was important to cultivate a “me first” attitude for fear of starving, being exterminated by a neighboring community or a being run down by woolly mammoth.
“We and all other animals are machines created by our genes…if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.” -The Human Genome, Gillian K. Ferguson.
So at our core, we are biologically predisposed to put ourselves first. It doesn’t make us a bad or ruthless people. It just is. Owning it and channeling that impulse to move forward in a career or in life is absolutely fine. “A joint study by researchers from the Kellogg School of Management, Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University found experimentally that in group settings, people who were selfish were seen as being more dominant, and by extension more attractive, as leaders than those who were generous and kind. Though generous people are popular in groups, on a subconscious level we equate kindness to weakness. Conversely, people who exhibit selfish behavior are seen as aggressive, alpha personalities, clearing their path to leadership positions.” – Entrepreneur.com
But does it really matter how you decide to win the race? Are you willing to self promote to the detriment of others? Are you willing to take credit for a project that isn’t yours? If you are, there is a potential upside. Realistically, you still may get ahead by being self focused. It happens all the time. The “why” on this is still being studied by multiple scientists. “At the University of Amsterdam, researchers have found that semi-obnoxious behavior not only can make a person seem more powerful, but can make them more powerful, period. The same goes for overconfidence. Act like you’re the smartest person in the room, a series of striking studies demonstrates, and you’ll up your chances of running the show. “- Jerry Useem, The Atlantic.
Conversely, you can self promote without stepping on others. You can shine a spot light on your own accomplishments, look for new opportunities to shine and participate in life long learning. Doing these things doesn’t make you a jerk. Self promotion can be savvy not slimy.
So what about our natural desire to be kind, helpful or selfless? Those are all traits we want to foster right? Adam Grant a Wharton professor and best-selling author of Why Helping Others Drivers Our Success, gives an evidence based accounting of people who give of their time, contacts or know-how without expecting anything in return. The book goes on to illustrate how these people dominate and excel in their fields, as a result of their selfless behavior.
According to Scientific American, there are studies which have proven that in the first year of human life, babies “exhibit empathy toward others in distress. At later stages in life, we routinely work together to reach goals and help out in times of need.” So we are born with that “selfless or generous gene” too.
Because there appears to be evidence which supports both the selfish and the not so selfish ways to get ahead, it may be incumbent upon each individual and their unique set of circumstances to determine which course of action is right for him/her. Although it’s clear that going the selfish route has its benefits, it’s a matter of perspective of whether or not it’s the right thing.
It’s widely known and accepted that Steve Jobs was a ruthless jerk. But he was also a wildly successful, rich and famous ruthless jerk. There are hundreds of examples of his horrible behavior. “When Jobs had to make cutbacks at Pixar, he fired people and didn’t give any severance pay. Pamela Kerwin, an early Pixar employee, pleaded that employees at least be given two weeks notice.”Okay,” he said, “but the notice is retroactive from two weeks ago.” – Business Insider
Jobs was OK with his reputation and he didn’t mind being labeled or remembered as such. For better or worse, Jobs left his mark. No matter how we decide to treat those around us, one thing is for certain, we will all be remembered for how we lived.