You have probably heard the saying “nice guys finish last.” Quite possibly, you’ve experienced this yourself at some point in your life, where being “nice” and accommodating did not pay off.

Why is it that rude inconsiderate jerks seem to get ahead more than they ought to?

Are they onto something?

When power is good

Researchers have found that individuals who feel powerful behave in certain ways that tend to enhance success. For instance, they are more likely to take action towards their goals, to take risks, express their emotions, and ignore situational pressures.

When power is bad

Of course, there is a fine line between acting assertively and being a jerk. While the above behaviors can be positive, they can also manifest in some pretty negative ways as well. For instance, powerful individuals are more likely to interrupt others and invade personal space, ignore other people’s suffering, take more cookies from a common plate, be patronizing, cheat, take credit for others’ work, and treat others as a means to their own ends.

We don’t usually like people who act in such ways. But according to a series of studies conducted at the University of Amsterdam, we seem to perceive strangers who act like jerks as being more powerful than those who act more in line with social norms.

Put another way, we seem to jump to the conclusion that people who act like jerks must be important, powerful people for whom the ordinary rules of polite society don’t apply.

What? You want me to dance?

I had a conversation with a singer last week, and when I mentioned this study, she drew an interesting parallel to an audition experience she once had.

It was for a role she had performed successfully many times in the past. So naturally, she went into the audition supremely confident, even cocky, with no doubt about her ability to nail the part.

The audition went great – until she was asked to dance. Much like the Friends episode where Joey has to dance in an audition of his own, she was taken by surprise and not at all prepared for this.

She did what she could, but left the audition convinced that there was no way she would get the role.

As it turns out, she received a phone call soon after with news that the job was hers.

Weeks later, she asked the casting director how it was possible that she got the part. He looked at her in surprise, and asked what she meant, saying she had a terrific voice, was a talented actor, and had a great audition. Yes, the dancing was a mess, but she didn’t apologize for it.

When apologizing is in bad form

How often do we apologize for our perceived shortcomings on stage? By carrying ourselves in a manner that communicates a lack of confidence, an expectation of failure, or uncertainty and tentativeness? By telegraphing our mistakes through facial expressions and body language? By mentally quitting on our performance after we miss a note?

Great artists make mistakes and have imperfect performances too. All the time, in fact. But you won’t find them apologizing for it in the midst of a performance.

You are on stage to catalyze within us a meaningful emotional experience. And wincing after every imperfection, looking sheepish, or otherwise communicating doubt/worry/insecurities about your performance does not enhance our experience, but instead engenders the sorts of emotions we don’t particularly want to feel when we go to a concert.

Take action

Telegraphing mistakes and responding negatively to mistakes can easily become a habit.

Instead, practice being more of a “jerk” onstage by refusing to apologize for imperfections no matter how egregious. Make the appearance of complete poise and command your default visual presentation, by working on this in run-throughs in the practice room. By reinforcing this in lessons, coachings, and low-key performances. By reviewing videos of performances to see what the audience sees, and ensuring you are sending the message you wish to send.

(And just to be clear so as to avoid any misunderstandings, this research should not be interpreted to mean that if you want to be a successful conductor you must act like a jerk towards the members of your orchestra…)

photo credit: trix0r via photo pin cc

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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