Want to Get Ahead at Work? Be Selfish! Turns out there really is something to the old adage "Nice Guys Finish Last". Here's how you can finish first.

By Rohan Ayyar

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Humans are social animals, we're taught. Nearly a third of the world's population is hooked onto social media. Looking at pictures of "cute" babies and animals shared by friends and family on Facebook is quite an addicting drug.

Everyone wants to be part of this warm, fuzzy and ADD-affected world of sharing -- and an ever-increasing number of "social" apps fulfill (and feed) their wishes by allowing them to broadcast their "visual stories" to random people who're connected to them, or even just happen to be around. Naturally, one expects a familial, co-operative approach to life to be the most rewarding one.

Related: Be Self-Aware, Be Selfless, and Then Be Selfish

Ah, but that's where we're wrong. No doubt, we were taught as kids to share our toys and be kind to others. Yet, that seems to be advice for an older, less innocent age.

Kindness equals weakness in groups.

New research suggests that these very ideals of sharing, brotherhood and co-operation could be holding us back from achieving our true potential at the workplace. It appears that nice guys do finish last at the workplace.

Seemingly, it takes a certain cold, calculating mindset to succeed in the corporate rat race. A joint study by researchers from the Kellog School of Management, Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University found experimentally that in group settings, people who were selfish were seen as being more dominant, and by extension more attractive, as leaders than those who were generous and kind. Though generous people are popular in groups, on a subconscious level we equate kindness to weakness. Conversely, people who exhibit selfish behavior are seen as aggressive, alpha personalities, clearing their path to leadership positions.

Related: How to Be the Nice Guy Who Never Finishes Last

When being selfish, group size matters. So do rewards.

More research published by Alexander Stewart and Joshua Plotkin from the University of Pennsylvania offers a mathematical explanation for how co-operation and selfishness arise in groups. Using a variation on the game Prisoners' Dilemma, they found that in small groups, cooperative behavior offers the best payoffs. However, beyond a certain group size, the tendency towards selfishness becomes predominant and continues as the groups get larger.

The researchers also found that when players are given the option of deciding their own risk–reward ratios they tended towards more selfish behavior.

This mirrors everyday life, when people not only have the choice of co-operating with their peers at work, they also have the option of regulating how much help they'll offer or how much time they'll devote to someone else's pet project. When people have the option of choosing how much they'll risk for others, they tend to behave selfishly and opt out of being "team players."

Don't expect reciprocal generosity at the workplace.

Now, we are wired to think that people are inherently nice to those who are nice to them, based on Robert Cialdini's famed Principle of Reciprocity.

However, Peter Belmi and Jeffrey Pfeffer of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, who carried out five experiments to determine the effect of generosity on people, discovered something very interesting. People were more likely to reciprocate generous behavior towards friends and acquaintances; when it came to co-workers and strangers, not so much.

They also found that the mere thought of one's workplace made people more calculating and selfish in their behavior. The researchers concluded that in spite of social conditioning to the contrary, being selfish is actually a necessity in today's workplace. Employees who act selflessly and count on their co-workers and organization to do right by them are more often than not, disappointed.

Related: 7 Amazing Things That Happen When You Stop Worrying About Nice

Look out for yourself.

So does that mean the only way to get ahead is by being mean to the people who work with us? For those of us who battle with the urge to be nice to people with the equally primal urge to stay ahead of the pack, here are a few pointers—

Learn to say No: Too many of us suffer from a chronic inability to say No to people. What this means is we're overstretched doing things that are not vital to our existence and left feeling used and taken advantage of. Now that you know that scientifically, our co-workers are hardwired to give us the short end of the stick at the first opportunity, it's OK to stand up for yourself and say the big N.O. every now and then. When helping someone out means your own work will suffer, simply turn them down with a gracious apology.

Prioritize your goals: There's nothing wrong in putting your own goals above those of others, especially at the workplace. This doesn't mean you forgo teamwork as a work principle, it just means tackling your individual tasks first and with most vigor before taking on group tasks that depend on multiple individuals.

Put aside time for self-improvement: Read more, take a course, learn a new skill, join a theatre group – you can do any of these and more to bring fresh perspectives to your workplace. The more you hone your skill sets as a professional, the more valuable you'll become to your organization. No one wants the burnt out yes-man to be their new Vice President. The violin virtuoso who is a great manager and can code in his sleep is definitely a more attractive choice.

Keep an eye out for opportunities: Be your own champion. You do this by offering to take on new initiatives or jumping for new opportunities that will enhance your track record and open new doors. Don't wait for a new responsibility to be entrusted to you; ask for it and your enterprising behavior will be remembered when the appraisal season comes around.

Related: The Selfish Reason You Should Be Extremely Generous

Wrapping up.

As Ayn Rand, the doyen of individualism and egoism famously put it,

"Man—every man—is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life."

You may not be a Rand believer, but the part about working for your own rational self-interest is clearly proven by science as a sound evolutionary strategy. Protecting your interests at work without being a total jerk to others is the goal here. Give it a shot, maybe?

Rohan Ayyar

Regional Marketing Manager

Rohan Ayyar is the  Regional Marketing Manager India, SEMrush. He is an avid blogger, with posts featured on MarketingProfs, Social Media Today and Business Insider, among other places.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

Editor's Pick

Related Topics


How Learning to Take Care of Myself Helps Me Take Care of My Business

For entrepreneurs, particularly women, balancing the myriad responsibilities of business ownership can be all-consuming. You can't pour from an empty cup — here's how I started putting myself first and how it made my business more successful, too.


Grab a Wireless 4-in-1 Charging Hub for $39.97

No need to worry about a dead battery slowing your hard-earned progress.

Starting a Business

This Black Founder Was Denied a Business Loan and Set Out to Prove the 'Gatekeepers' Wrong. He's Made More Than $500,000 So Far — But It's Just the Beginning.

Rob Gooljar, founder of IRIS blossom, started an Instagram account to share his love of floral arrangements — then the requests started rolling in.

Business News

Want to Start a Billion-Dollar Business? Look to These Two Industries, Which Have the Most Unicorn Growth

During a tough fundraising year overall last year, the value of cybersecurity and AI unicorns saw double-digit growth.

Business News

A 29-Year-Old CEO Quit Microsoft To Build His Startup — And Just Scored A Deal on Shark Tank

Aabesh De tapped into a niche need during the pandemic and founded Flora, a houseplant care startup.