All News and events

According to a longitudinal study, despite the stereotypes, being disagreeable doesn’t make you powerful.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, was recently criticised in an official report for bullying staff in her department.  Her defenders claim that Ms Patel merely has a forthright manner and believes that her attitude is essential to gets things done in a large organisation.  From The Apprentice to Sir Philip Green, the architype of the shouty boss who takes no prisoners is well known.  Some of us have even had to endure them ourselves.

But do they really get things done?  Is raising your voice an effective way of achieving results?  New research suggests that it isn’t.  Cameron Anderson, professor and Lorraine Tyson Mitchell chair in leadership and communication II at Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and his team tracked individuals over 14 years. They wondered what happened to those members of the cohort who fitted the stereotype of the aggressive boss.  

In the first part of the study, the researchers took what are called the Big Five personality traits.  These are: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.  They measured these traits in nearly 500 participants when they were at university.  

More disagreeable but not more powerful

Then they returned to the group 14 years later when they were well into their careers.  How were these people doing in terms of their power in the organisations that they worked in, their own impression of the power that they wielded and their view of the culture of the organisation?  Was it, they asked, somewhere with a blame culture where people were criticised and encouraged to think only of themselves?

The individuals who were judged to be more disagreeable at university were not more powerful, regardless of their age, gender or ethnicity when they were assessed in the second measurement.  

With a second group the researchers grouped behaviours into four categories of behaviour: dominant, communal, political and competent.  Their colleagues were asked to rate them on these traits and then on their power and rank within the organisation.  In this case the assessments by these colleagues largely corelated with those of the participants themselves.  The findings also showed that people who adopted these four behaviour categories enjoyed greater power.

More extravert – more powerful?

The team also discovered that those individuals who seemed to be more extravert when they were first studied, back at university, became more powerful.  The disagreeable people, not surprisingly, were more likely to exhibit dominant rather than communal behaviours. 

The conclusion?  Being dominant might help you to claw your way up the corporate ladder to some extent but you’ll also need to be able to take a more communal approach to really progress.  Any benefits of simply being dominant and offensive can be cancelled out by failure to be kind and generous. 

“I’ve always been fascinated by a simple question: ‘Can you succeed without being a terrible person?’” asks David Bodanis, author, business advisor and biographer of the equation E=mc2 in his new book The Art of Fairness.  Bodanis, explores the idea that kind, fair-minded people who consult widely can be good managers.  

Danny Boyle – nice guy

He looks at how Danny Boyle managed to stop 10,000 people from leaking details about his spectacular opening ceremony for 2012 London Olympics.  Rather than threatening them or issuing nondisclosure agreements, the celebrated film director just asked them if they’d please keep it a secret.  And they did.  

Danny Boyle was known as a considerate, mild mannered leader who built consensus.   Bodanis identifies three characteristics that, he argues, are essential for all successful leaders: listening without ego, giving in a way that builds trust and defending without vilifying.

It should be said, of course, that there are some sectors in which being aggressive and dominant is more acceptable than others.  However, most of us instinctively know what kind of boss we’d rather work for.