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Monday, 2 March 2009

Want to be rich? Try being rude to people

THERE are fewer ways to make quick money without much effort these days than there are investors in Royal Bank of Scotland Group plc.

Investment banking? It will be broken for a generation. Hedge funds? You have more chance of getting the pope to organise your stag night than you have of rustling up fresh funds. Private equity? To put it politely, an industry based entirely on swapping solid-looking equity for funny-sounding debt is looking just a shade past its sell-by date.

Here's a tip that should come easily to the legions of former bankers and fund managers: If you want to make a lot of money, just try being rude to people.

Hold on, that doesn't make sense, you may say. Surely the way to get on in life is to be as polite as possible. A soft cloud of charm can carry even the lamest executive all the way to the boardroom. Tell everyone you meet they are fantastic, listen to their ridiculous suggestions, buy them a drink as they launch into a tedious anecdote, and they will think you are great. The way to the top is to be courteous, you say.

No less an authority than Dale Carnegie in his self-help classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People makes the point emphatically. Rule No 1 for making people like you: Become genuinely interested in them. Rule No 2: Smile.

New research has turned that wisdom upside down. The richer people are, the ruder they are, according to Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Prof Keltner and co-researcher Michael Kraus videotaped 100 undergraduate students who didn't know each other, and studied their body language during one-minute gaps in conversation.

The results were clear: Students from a higher socio-economic background were more likely to be rude during the silence. They would doodle, fidget or start grooming themselves. Less-privileged students made far more effort to engage with the other person, making 'I'm interested' signals such as laughing or raising eyebrows.

In short, the richer people were a lot ruder, while the poor were a lot more polite. The psychologists viewed the results as basic animal behaviour. The higher up the food chain you are, the fitter and stronger you are. The wealthier animals are signalling that they don't need anyone. The poorer animals are ingratiating themselves because they need help. 'It is the experience of wealth that leads individuals to become disengaged,' Prof Keltner says.

There is much truth to that. The richer you are, the less reliant you are on other people. It doesn't matter much what others think of you, since you are unlikely to be asking them for a favour any time soon.

And yet while the rich may be rude because they are wealthy, it is just as likely to be the other way around. Just as plausibly, they are wealthy because they are rude.

Mr Carnegie and other self-help writers have missed the point the last few decades. Getting ahead in life isn't about making people like you. It is about getting them to serve your interests.

Success depends, more than anything, on an inner ruthlessness. As anyone who has spent much time with chief executives will know, they are mostly an unpleasant bunch.

They bully, cajole, threaten and fume. There are very few examples of them flattering or charming their way to the top. They are more likely to be shouting and raging at people, demanding the impossible, and casting old friends and colleagues aside the moment they become an inconvenience. The accumulation of wealth requires an ability to crush rivals, stamp on employees, and sweep aside all opposition. Charm doesn't come into it.

As your bank or hedge fund slides toward insolvency, just carry on barking at your secretary, snubbing waitresses, and blanking old friends who nod at you in the elevator. Everyone will assume you are still loaded - and will hold off pulling the plug on you for a few more days at least. -- Bloomberg

Matthew Lynn is a Bloomberg News columnist.

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