The Pros and Cons of Being a Jerk at Work

At some point, we’ve all met a jerk at work. These people may have reckless abandon for the feelings of others. They may be loud, rude, obnoxious, tactless, crass, or forceful. On the other hand, we sometimes see or hear examples of jerks achieving renowned success in the business world. Successful jerks are oftentimes known for their originality and creativity, and for their entrepreneurial achievement. New research (Hunter & Cushenbery, 2015) explores whether being a jerk has certain advantages, or if the so-called benefits of being a jerk are really just a lot of hot air.

SCIENTIFICALLY DEFINING A JERK

The authors define the term jerk as a person who is very low on the personality trait of agreeableness. Such a person is known for aggression, dominance, and for being argumentative. Conversely, someone with a high degree of agreeableness is warm, compassionate, and cooperative. The researchers ran two different experimental studies of simulated business environments. They asked study participants to individually generate ideas in order to solve a problem, and then form a group in which they would have to collaborate and determine which of the individual ideas they would adopt. Trained assistants determined how original these ideas were, and recorded which ideas ended up being accepted by the group.

STUDY RESULTS: JERKS AND ORIGINALITY

The first study showed that participants who were less agreeable (in other words, more jerk-like) were more likely to have their groups adopt their ideas. On the other hand, jerks were not any more likely to produce more original ideas. That fits in with psychological theory, and simply makes sense, say the authors. Being a jerk may not necessarily give you better ideas, but you will have more success in taking your ideas and making sure they are heard. Jerks are not afraid to speak up or twist a few arms to get what they want.

In a second study, the researchers found that being a jerk is useful for producing original ideas, but only in situations when two things are true. First, groups must be generally unsupportive of ideas (they may be quick to dismiss things they think won’t work), and second, colleagues must also demonstrate that creative solutions are valued. When the group shows that creativity is welcome, it may be the jerk who is unafraid of the otherwise critical environment and gets his or her creative ideas out.

THE BOTTOM LINE ON JERKS IN THE WORKPLACE

This study investigates jerks and originality. In the face of anecdotal evidence that jerks may be at the forefront of innovation and creativity, the authors demonstrate that jerks don’t necessarily excel at all aspects of it. While we shouldn’t expect jerks to come up with better ideas, we can be sure that when jerks do have ideas, they will be heard and likely adopted by others. The real strength of jerks seems to be in creative but unsupportive environments. In these cases especially, the qualities of a jerk may make innovation possible, despite the interpersonal headaches jerks are known to cause.

Hunter, S.T., & Cushenbery, L. (2014). Is Being a Jerk Necessary for Originality? Examining the Role of Disagreeableness in the Sharing and Utilization of Original Ideas. Journal of Business and Psychology, 30(4), 621-639.