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future of work

Do you need to be a jerk in business to get ahead?

It's an ongoing argument in my house. I've always believed that playing fairly with others is the most advantageous route, but my hubby insists that it pays to be a jerk – not to everybody, but strategically to generate specific results.

It's impossible to pinpoint when this question became a talking point, but everyone has an opinion. I even asked our 11-year-old son if he thought a person needed to be mean to be successful at work. He wisely observed that it's complicated: No one wants to work for or buy products from a jerk, but nice guys (or gals) might find it a challenge to keep everyone in line.

Popular culture seems to support my hubby's verdict that the wealthy and powerful ascended to their position by quashing those beneath them. C. Montgomery Burns, the ruthless owner of the power plant in The Simpsons, is bent on lining his pockets with cash at any cost to his employees or the environment. Then there are the Horrible Boss films, where three hapless employees will do anything to start their own business and rid themselves of the shackles of being employed by their cruel managers.

Then came Adam Grant, a Wharton professor whose book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success demonstrated that "givers," or those who are unselfish in work, manage to find their way to the top of the success chain more often than "takers," and hoped that this conversation would finally be over.

Unfortunately, the notion that selfishness leads to success persists, likely fuelled by savvy chief executive officers famous for being challenging to work with. Steve Jobs is often mentioned in this context. Uber's CEO Travis Kalanick has been accused of the same.

The corollary of this argument is that anyone who is not a jerk is doomed to fail. Recently, a female CEO of tech startup confided that within minutes of meeting one venture capitalist, he concluded that this slight and soft-spoken inventor wasn't CEO material, insinuating that she needed to be more brutish to get ahead.

As much as it pains me to admit it, there is some research that concludes it actually does pay to be a jerk.

Male jerks earn more than their less-contrarian colleagues by 18 per cent, according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"Nice guys do not necessarily finish last, but they do finish a distant second in terms of earnings," said the study's authors. Friendlier men are penalized for not conforming to gender norms, but even the nice guys make out quite well compared with either agreeable or disagreeable women, according to the study.

"Nice girls might not get rich but mean girls do not do much better," it added.

Marc Gordon, a Toronto-based expert in marketing and branding, said he is no stranger to jerks but believes the ones who really need watching are those who can turn on their niceness when it's advantageous. He recounts a story of one client in the leasing industry who is demeaning and aggressive to employees but charming to his customers.

"His success is, in large part, the result of his ability to selectively be nice to those he feels can benefit him," said Mr. Gordon. "On the flip side, his staff turnover is high, his partner left and became a competitor and he has built a reputation in the industry as a jerk."

For argument's sake, let's say it does unequivocally pay to be a jerk. What do you do if this type of behaviour does not come naturally? Can you cultivate it if you want to? Mr. Gordon said he tried it early in his career and it lasted about a day. The energy he needed to act mean was too exhausting and it was easier to just be himself.

"I think it's impossible for nice people to be jerks," he said. "While they might do some thoughtless – perhaps even mean – things from time to time, they generally have their hearts in the right place. On the other hand, I find real jerks tend to be wired that way. Their likeability is short lived because they can only hide their true selves for so long."

Perhaps it's time to just accept that jerks are jerks, and while there may be some corollary to their pay and success, poor behaviour doesn't generate wealth.

It may also be time for popular culture to demonstrate good stories – a Mr. Burns who discovers that he gets more out of his employees when he supports them, rather than keep them hiding in fear.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler