Why do jerks succeed at work while nice people fail?

You’ve met him. Despised him. Cursed him. Exploded about him to your spouse or friend.

And now he’s no longer your coworker — he’s your manager.

Where’s the justice, you wonder? How did this complete jerk with his outsized ego leapfrog past more competent, likable colleagues to attain power over you and others?

If you’ve wondered why SOBs succeed while nice guys finish second, or how you can work for a manager who’s a jerk without losing your sanity or becoming a jerk yourself, read on.

Why do jerks succeed?

According to psychologists, “disagreeable” people often succeed when competing with those more agreeable because “jerks” push themselves forward, broadcast their accomplishments, erode others’ confidence by belittling them, and force others to accept them and their views.

In a study cited in The Wall Street Journal this month, researchers asked 200 people to generate ideas for an online marketing campaign and then work in groups to select the best ideas. The groups selected the ideas presented by the “more argumentative, egotistical, aggressive, headstrong and hostile” members because these individuals pushed their ideas forward.

When disagreeable individuals engage in conflict with colleagues who prefer to be agreeable, says business coach Remy Blumenfeld in “Why Jerks Come Out on Top,” they “win because they don’t care how much they upset or offend others or whether others think they’re jerks.”


Working under jerks without losing your sanity or becoming a jerk yourself

Here are four strategies to try if you work for a jerk.

Don’t take what they do or say personally.

Don’t invite a jerk into your head or let him stomp on your spirit. If you allow a jerk to shape how you see yourself by swallowing his statements or judgments about you, you aid and abet him. Jerks don’t have the right to define who you are; you have the right to judge your own behavior and competency. After all, who knows you better than you know yourself?

Remember, it’s your brain, and don’t give them an outpost in it. Once you internalize a jerk’s guff, it becomes yours. As an example, don’t ask, “Why did he call me out in front of the full team?” If you let that question rattle around in your brain, you drown in a problem you can’t solve. Your manager chooses to be a jerk; you can’t save him, you can only succeed despite him.

It’s not your circus; he’s not your monkey.

Someone else decided to promote or hire the jerk as a manager. You neither supervise him nor need to buy into his behavior. For example, let’s assume he barks at you, “Get this done now!” and that gets under your skin. Perhaps his barking intimidates you and makes you quake inside. Alternatively, his barking might push you to bark back. In both scenarios, your jerk manager creates a “game” and if you play it, he wins.

Instead, stand outside the game he instigates, observe it, and take an action that allows you to retain your dignity. Your manager just barked at you. If he were a barking dog, would you freeze inside, want to run or bark back? No. You wouldn’t even say “Don’t bark at me,” because you don’t own this dog. Instead, if he barks “Get this done!” you can calmly say, “I’m on it.” Because you are.

Develop allies.

Does the jerk in your work life underestimate you, your resiliency or your ability to stand up for yourself? If so, how have you contributed to this? Have you signaled you’re an easy target?

Does he think you lack alliances and thus not worry about others coming to your aid? If so, perhaps you can fight back without fighting the jerk directly, by developing your relationships with others.


Finally, if you’re willing to take a risk because you can’t stand it any longer, realize that facts are your friend when you want to call “game over.” Document the major instances of jerk-like behavior, and when you have concrete proof of what the jerk costs your organization in productivity or talented employees who have quit, present your findings to the manager above your manager.

What if this doesn’t work? Your organization has chosen, and now you have a choice. Do you want to stay, or is your best alternative finding a new job and employer and leaving the jerk behind?

Lynne Curry | Alaska Workplace

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Navigating Conflict,” “Managing for Accountability,” “Beating the Workplace Bully" and “Solutions,” and Submit questions at or follow her on, or @lynnecurry10 on X/Twitter.