People often attribute the success of innovators, like Steve Jobs, to abrasive personalities. This attribution is related to the idea that the more “jerky” you are during a discussion of ideas, the more likely your idea is to be heard and used. But is it true that people have to be jerks to succeed?
A recent study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology says you do not need to be, but it depends on the environment.
“The main idea is that you don’t have to be a jerk to get your ideas heard along as you’re in a supportive environment,” Lily Cushenbery, an assistant professor of management at Stony Brook University’s College of Business and one of the co-researchers of the study, said.
In their paper, Cushenbery and Samuel Hunter, an associate professor of psychology at Penn State, described a “jerk” as an individual that exhibited lower levels of “agreeableness,” one of five personality traits measured using the Big Five personality test. For the purposes of their study, they defined lower levels of agreeableness as “disagreeableness.” People who were more disagreeable were characterized as being “confident, dominant, argumentative, egotistical, aggressive, headstrong and hostile.”
The study, which had about 500 participants, relied on two experiments. The first experiment required participants to work individually and then in a group. The second experiment required participants to work online and in a group.
In the first study, participants first worked individually and were then placed into a group to generate a solution to a problem. The first study found that disagreeableness was unrelated to creative idea generation but was positively related to group utilization of ideas. In other words, people with jerky personalities did not have more creative ideas, but they were more likely to get their creative ideas used by the group. The results depended largely on group composition and social context.
The second study again found that jerky personalities were not linked to idea generation, but people with jerky personalities were more likely to share their novel ideas in more unsupportive and hostile environments.
“It depends on the group,” Cushenbery said. “If you’re in a team that is generally more respectful, then there’s less of a mean to be pushy. But, if you’re working in a more competitive environment, a place where there is more time constraints, where people are more edgy and less receptive to creative work, being lower on agreeableness then would be more useful in that situation.”
The second study thus supported the idea of trait activation theory, a psychological theory that states that people are more likely to exhibit a characteristic trait when their environment elicits that trait. Agreeable participants were more likely to share their ideas in supportive environments, whereas disagreeable participants were more likely to share their ideas in competitive environments.
“Having a supportive environment is really good for creativity,” Cushenbery said. “It increases what we call psychological safety, the feeling you can take risks and not be judged harshly for ideas that you present.”
Furthermore, being a “jerk” in a supportive environment did not elicit more group utilization of ideas. Cushenbery said their study shows that nicer people can have great ideas, as long as their environments are supportive.
“The idea is that we don’t all have to be Steve Jobs, in that he’s not the only person that has kind of really great ideas and that actually really nice people might have them, but they just might be more reluctant to talk to them if the environment is unsupportive,” Cushenbery said.