Nice guys don’t always finish last: Being selfish doesn’t get you ahead even in a dog-eat-dog workplace, study finds

  • A study looked at the personality of 450 students and their career progress
  • The students filled in personality surveys while at university and again at work
  • They found no faster career progression for selfish people over nicer individuals 

Being selfish, even in a dog-eat-dog workplace, doesn’t get you ahead and ‘nice guys’ don’t always finish last, a new study of ‘disagreeable people’ found.    

Disagreeable people, who are selfish, combative and manipulative may be intimidating, but their lack of social skills cause them more harm at work than good. 

University of California, Berkeley researchers asked 450 students to fill in personality surveys – then did the same a decade later also examining their career progress.

Selfish, deceitful and aggressive people were no further in their careers than people who were generous, trustworthy and nice, according to the study findings.  

Researchers advise managers to consider how ‘agreeable’ someone is when looking at promotions – as ‘nicer’ people tend to be better for the organisation.  

Disagreeable people, who are selfish, combative and manipulative may be intimidating, but their lack of social skills cause them more harm at work than good. Stock image

Students doing an undergraduate degree or an MBA at three different universities completed two different assessments twice – each a decade apart. 


There are four main ways people attain power, according to the authors of a new study into aggression at work.

The ways include: 

Dominant-aggressive behavior: using fear and intimidation

Political behavior: building alliances with other, influential people 

Communal behavior: Or helping others achieve their own goals and by build personal relationships

Competent behavior: Basically by being very good at your job

Researchers from the University of California, Berkley, asked subjects of the study personality trait questions.

They spoke their co-workers to rate their place in the organisation. 

Authors found that disagreeable people do not get ahead faster than others.  

were offset by the disadvantages of having poor personal relationships with others, the study authors said.  

Co-author of the study, Professor Cameron Anderson at University of California, Berkeley said: ‘I was surprised by the consistency of the findings.’

‘No matter the individual or the context, disagreeableness did not give people an advantage in the competition for power – even in more cutthroat, ‘dog-eat-dog’ organisational cultures,’ Anderson explained.

‘That’s not to say that jerks don’t reach positions of power. It’s just that they didn’t get ahead faster than others, and being a jerk simply didn’t help.’

Nearly 450 undergraduate and MBA students at three universities filled in the Big Five Inventory (BFI) and the NEO Personality Inventory Revised (NEO PI-R) surveys.

The same people were then surveyed again 14-years later to determine their power and rank in the workplace, as well as their organisation’s corporate culture. 

The BFI survey examined five ‘fundamental’ personality dimensions, generally accepted by psychologists, including openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness.

NEO PI-RI, on the other hand goes deeper into the personality and looks at how people are able to attain power.

It looks whether it is through aggressive behaviour or using fear and intimidation, political behaviour or building alliances with people of influence, communal behaviour or helping others, and competent behaviour or being good at one’s job.

Professor Oliver John, a co-author of the study said the study revealed that disagreeableness is a relatively stable aspect of personality. 

‘Disagreeable people tend to be hostile and abusive to others, deceive and manipulate others for their own gain, and ignore others’ concerns or welfare.’

Putting a disagreeable person in a position of power can harm an organisation, according to Oliver and the team.

This is because they tend to ’cause abuse, promote self-interest at the expense of the company’s success and end up creating a corrupt corporate culture and serving as a toxic role model for others, the study found.

Professor Anderson added: ‘The bad news here is that organisations do place disagreeable individuals in charge just as often as agreeable people.

‘In other words, they allow jerks to gain power at the same rate as anyone else, even though jerks in power can do serious damage to the organisation.’ 

Any advantages to being intimidating were offset by the disadvantages of having poor personal relationships with others, the study authors said. Stock image

‘My advice to managers would be to pay attention to agreeableness as an important qualification for positions of power and leadership,’ Anderson said.

‘Prior research is clear: agreeable people in power produce better outcomes.’

The findings were true regardless of gender, race or ethnicity, industry, or the organisation’s cultural norms.

They said more work would be needed to discover whether the same ‘nice guy’ findings apply in the world of politics as ‘it’s a very different environment’. 

‘Disagreeable politicians might have more difficulty maintaining necessary alliances because of their toxic behaviour,’ said Anderson.

The findings were published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

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