by Doctor Science
Jerry Useem's Atlantic article Why It Pays to Be a Jerk is amazingly self-contradictory, probably because it's written for and about people who really want to be jerks but aren't willing to admit it.
Start with the title. The headline and the subhead -- "New research confirms what they say about nice guys" -- say that the article is going to tell you that being a jerk definitely pays off (at least in business), and why. But Useem writes:
To summarize: being a jerk is likely to fail you, at least in the long run, if it brings no spillover benefits to the group; if your professional transactions involve people you'll have to deal with over and over again; if you stumble even once; and finally, if you lack the powerful charismatic aura of a Steve Jobs. (It's also marginally more likely to fail you, several studies suggest, if you're a woman.) Which is to say: being a jerk will fail most people most of the time.
[emphasis mine.] In other words, the headline + subhead -- doubtless written by an editor, not the author -- directly
contradicts the article.
It's maybe not entirely the headline-editor's fault, because the text of the article also contradicts *itself* -- as do the articles and experts Useem used as sources.
For instance, Useem talked to Donald Hambrick of Penn State about his paper with Arijit Chatterjee, It's All about Me: Narcissistic Chief Executive Officers and Their Effects on Company Strategy and Performance. They found that narcististic CEOs were found mostly at the two ends of the company success distribution: "very successful" and "failure".
This U-shaped distribution, Hambrick grudgingly allows, suggests that "there is such a thing as a useful narcissist."
No, it doesn't. Hambrick doesn't seem to have understood his own results.
Hambrick & Chatterjee found that
CEO narcissism is related to extreme and irregular company performance. Narcissistic CEOs tend to generate more extreme performance—more big wins and big losses—than their less narcissistic counterparts, as measured by both accounting and shareholder returns.
The null hypothesis should be not that some narcissists are useful (those who show big wins), but that some narcissists are lucky
: that, by chance, their "extreme and irregular" performance has a (probably temporary) good result.
Another one of Useem's sources flat-out doesn't know what he's talking about:
There was a time in mankind's history—well, prehistory—when being a bully was the only route to the top. We know this, explains Jon Maner, an evolutionary psychologist at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, by deduction. Every last species of animal except Homo sapiens determines pecking order according to physical strength and physical strength alone. This is true of the seemingly congenial dolphin, whose tooth-and-fin battles for status resemble Hobbes's "war of everyone against everyone." And it is true even of our closest cousin, the chimpanzee.Maner
is the kind of "evolutionary psychologist" I call an Evo-Psycho: I just want to smack the word "evolution" out of his hands, because he's making real evolutionary biology look bad.
No, every last mammal species doesn't determine dominance by physical strength alone, sheesh, *especially* among the more social species (which would include humans). Baboons, for instance, inherit dominance: female baboons are dominant by lineage, not unlike a human aristocracy. Elephant troops are led by the oldest female, the matriarch: not because she's necessarily the strongest, but because she's the wisest, the one who knows most about all the food and water sources in the area. And that's not even getting into the observation that baboon troops can have distinctive, less-jerky cultures, passed down from resident females to immigrant males. Or that all the nonsense you hear guys spouting about "alpha wolves" is nonsense.
The biggest misinterpretation in the article, IMHO, is about Steve Jobs. The idea that maybe it's a good idea for a business leader to be a jerk was given a big boost by Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs.
The average business reader, worried Tom McNichol in an online article for The Atlantic soon after the book's publication, might come away thinking: "See! Steve Jobs was an asshole and he was one of the most successful businessmen on the planet. Maybe if I become an even bigger asshole I'll be successful like Steve."
McNichol is not alone. Since Steve Jobs was published in 2011, "I think I've had 10 conversations where CEOs have looked at me and said, ‘Don't you think I should be more of an asshole?' " says Robert Sutton, a professor of management at Stanford ...
Sutton doesn't point out that asking that question pretty much guarantees the person is an asshole *already*.
What's more striking to me is that neither Useem nor the people he quotes notice that that Jobs' case shows the clearest possible downside of being an asshole: it killed him.
Whether we say "asshole", "jerk", or "narcissist", we're talking about the behavior discussed by Aaron James in Assholes: a Theory:
The asshole (1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically; (2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and (3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.
Jobs' sense of power, control, and being smarter than anybody else was the major reason he died of a preventable illness
. He may have been "immunized" against other people's opinions, but it was no substitute for actual, immune-system-type immunity.
I think one thing that led Jobs into his fatal error was the constant praise he -- and other entrepreneurs -- get for "being bold and taking risks". For instance, speaking of Hambrick's work, Useem writes:
Narcissistic CEOs, he found, tend to be gamblers. Compared with average CEOs, they are more likely to make high-profile acquisitions (in an effort to feed the narcissistic need for a steady stream of adulation). Some of these splashy moves work out. Others don't. But "to the extent that innovation and risk taking are in short supply in the corporate world"—an assertion few would contest—"narcissists are the ones who are going to step up to the plate."
What you should notice in this rhetoric is that "risk-taking" is being praised, while what you might call the actual "risk" part of risk-taking is ignored or dismissed.
What kind of "risk" is it where you get praised if you win, and experience no terrible consequence if you fail? Yes, a CEO who "takes risks" that don't work out may lose his position, but he has basically zero chance of ending up poor, or even middle-class. He might lose his mansion, but he'll still be able to afford to own a nice house, just as he'll still have a car, health insurance, and enough money to disqualify his children from getting reduced-cost school lunches.
Meanwhile, the employees of a company where a narcissistic CEO has lost a risky bet may face real, serious problems: loss of income, loss of pensions, loss of insurance and homes and educational opportunities, falling out of the middle class at least temporarily.
It's yet another example of how our plutocratic inequality privatizes profits and socializes risks. It's not just that the government considers some businesses "too big to fail", it's that the rampant inequality in the whole system means some people are "too big to fail": too rich, too well-connected, too privileged.
I argue, then, that the reason Steven Jobs gambled with his own life and lost, was (partly) because he was used to gambling with play money, with taking risks where he, personally, didn't risk anything fundamentally important. He was praised for his boldness and audacity, for his "risk-taking", even though the real risks were all borne by other people. So, when he was faced at last with a truly serious risk, a risk where his personal stakes were literally life and death, he acted as he always had: boldly, audaciously, riskily. Fatally.
Basically, "it pays to be a jerk" if the game you're playing is just a game, if a loss isn't truly life-threatening. That's one reason Maner's evo-psycho maunderings are so wrong-headed: in nature, high-risk strategies are likely to be avoided because a loss can be fatal, it's not just an opportunity to play another game.
I *do* think that assholish behavior has become more common in business, especially at the highest "C-suite" levels -- though it's growing by imitation lower down the hierarchy. I think it's a function of economic inequality, of the fact that the C-suite cannot truly lose by the risks they take. Their "entrenched sense of entitlement" is supported by society as a whole, so why shouldn't they be assholes?