The rude and the powerful

Since when did displays of rude, aggressive behaviour get you ahead at work?

Well according to research from the University of Amsterdam, people behaving badly often set their own agenda at work and as a result, they forge ahead in their career.

“As individuals gain power, they experience increased freedom to violate prevailing norms ... suggesting that they have relatively high levels of power that enable them to behave as they please," the researchers say.

Participants in the study learned about a bookkeeper who bent accounting rules and about someone who would help themselves to a cup of someone’s coffee without asking.

For the person taking the coffee, people were asked to evaluate them on four power statements: 'this person is influential', '…has a leadership position', '… is in charge of subordinates' and '… enjoys considerable authority'. 

The researchers found that people rated this person as a more powerful figure who showed all of the above signs. Similarly, the crooked bookkeeper was seen as more powerful because he was regarded as the sort of person who could influence people’s pay level and whether they get a promotion.

In other words, the rule breakers were seen as more in control and powerful compared to people who didn't steal the coffee or didn't break bookkeeping rules.

If the research is right, it becomes a vicious circle. Power corrupts but behaving in a corrupt way and violating the rules makes people think you’re more powerful. And that helps some advance in their careers.

Experts say that aggressive and pushy people know all about power and are better equipped to play the game. They operate best within a traditional power structure where everyone knows his or her place.

They’re often highly disciplined and goal directed, don’t get intimidated and will do whatever it takes and they ... which means they get ahead, while the rest of us just fall into line.

Management thinker Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford, says that people gravitate towards the powerful and in doing so, they overlook rude and pushy behaviour.

“One of the most fundamental principles of power is that it is self-reinforcing. People with power have the resources to keep it — they are able to hire the best talent and access the best opportunities … And they will make all sorts of accommodations to be near success.

"Consequently, while likeability can often produce power, power and success invariably produce likeability. People choose to be with successful people and organisations, and then make sense of their choices by deciding that they actually like and respect those they are associating with.”

He doesn’t completely agree with the maxim that “nice guys finish last”. But as he puts it, if you do succeed, few will take issue with your level of niceness. In other words, we don’t like rude people but we do respect them if they are in positions of power.

Still, there are others who reckon it works the other way - and that being rude is bad for careers and business. Richard Branson, for example, says that it’s counterproductive to be rude and aggressive. “There are lots of ways to get your point across and make your business successful without being aggressive. Always remember that you love what you do and your role is to persuade others to love your business, too, and, therefore, to want to work with you.” And other commentators say rudeness can actually stymie careers, simply because people don’t want to work with you.

But there are still too many examples to ignore of successful people who have made a career out of being rude or pushy.

Do you think highly successful people are ruder and more aggressive, and should they get away with it?