Research Shows Jerks Get Ahead in Spite of Their Jerkiness, Not Because of It

Nice guys don't always finish last.

Does it really pay to be civil? Or do jerks get ahead? Some point to leaders that seem to succeed even though they behave uncivilly, but after researching the topic for over two decades, I believe those people have succeeded despite their incivility. Studies by Morgan McCall including those with Michael Lombardo while they were with the Center for Creative Leadership, have shown that the number one characteristic associated with an executive’s failure is “an insensitive, abrasive or bullying style,” while the second is “aloofness or arrogance.” Power can force compliance, but disrespect or insensitivity can sabotage support in crucial situations. Incivility is generally an approach that is only effective in the short-term, not for building enduring leadership success

Civil people usually have more opportunities for collaboration handed to them. Think about it: If you needed help from a colleague, would you call upon someone who was nice or someone who was more capable but a bit uncivil? Most people claim they would select the more capable one, arguing that ability is what counts. Yet in a study of more than ten thousand work relationships, people chose colleagues for collaboration by asking the question “Do I enjoy working with her/him?” rather than the question “Does this person know what he/she is doing?” If you treat people well, they’re more excited to work with you. Over time, your reputation spreads, and still more people want to choose you over a possibly more talented but less civilized peer.

As our research has shown, people viewed as civil tend to occupy more important positions in networks. They serve as connectors of ideas, information, and people, and they are poised to cross boundaries more effectively in organizations. More respectful people reap a windfall of networking and personal benefits, whereas those seen as uncivil get shut out of networks and all the benefits that come with them, such as information, advice, and career opportunities. In one study I did, participants were 1.2 times more likely to recommend a civil person for a job than an uncivil person.

Civil behavior pays off in other ways too. If you’re eager to move up the corporate ladder, people need to think of you as a leader. Studies I performed with Alexandra Gerbasi and Sebastian Schorch showed that people tended to associate civility (defined in this study as treating someone respectfully, with dignity, politeness, or pleasantry) with being a leader. In a study we did at a biotechnology firm, those seen as civil were twice as likely to be viewed as leaders than those deemed uncivil, and they performed 13% better.

Demonstrations of civility also help determine if people see someone as an effective leader. In a global study of over seventy-five thousand people, participants rated “caring,” “cooperative,” and “fair-minded” most highly among the characteristics of admired leaders. A survey I performed of twenty thousand employees worldwide found that “demonstrating respect” was the most important leadership quality for garnering commitment and engagement. Those who felt their leader demonstrated respect reported 56% better health and well-being, 92% greater focus and prioritization, 26% more meaning and significance, and 55% more engagement. Authors of research who analyzed the findings from sixty-nine previous studies noted, “Leadership now, more than in the past, appears to incorporate more feminine relational qualities, such as sensitivity, warmth, and understanding.”

Research shows that civility enhances the performance of teams and organizations as well. A study of cross-functional product teamsrevealed that when leaders treated members of their team well, and fairly, the team members were more productive individually and as a team. They also were more likely to go above and beyond their job requirements. Civility creates a psychologically safe environment—a trusting, respectful, safe place to take risks. Studying more than 180 of its teams, Google found that who was on a team mattered less than how team members interacted, structured their work, and viewed their contributions. Employees on teams with more psychological safety were more likely to make use of their teammates’ ideas and less likely to leave Google. They generated more revenue for the company and were rated as “effective” twice as often by executives.

It all starts at the top. When leaders are civil, it increases performance and creativityallows for early mistake detection and the initiative to take actions; and reduces emotional exhaustion.

By being civil, you get to be a nice person and get ahead. You’ll also lift your team and organization with you.