Imagine you're out for a drive and come to a four-way intersection with stop signs on every side. In the state where I live, the driver to the right has the right-of-way (although sometimes that rule of the road devolves to, "first to arrive, first to roll through.")
Then imagine you're out for a walk and come to the same intersection. Since you're the pedestrian, you have the right-of-way.
Yet it often doesn't work that way. Sometimes another driver will cut you off. According to research, that happens a little over 12 percent of the time with cars, and just over a third of the time with pedestrians.
But here's where it gets interesting: According to a series of studies published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the driver of an expensive car is three times more likely to cut you off than the driver of a moderately-priced car.
And on the flip side, drivers of the oldest, least expensive cars will almost never cut you off.
But wait, there's more! Subsequent studies showed that compared to lower class individuals, upper class individuals (defined by wealth, occupational status, education, etc.) were more likely to make unethical decisions. Like lying during negotiations. Cheating to increase their chances of winning a prize. Supporting unethical behavior at work. Taking candy (literally) from children.
Which at face value, especially if you consider yourself to be more upper than lower class, might sound odd. As the researchers theorize:
On the one hand, lower-class individuals live in environments defined by fewer resources, greater threats, and more uncertainty. It stands to reason, therefore, that lower-class individuals may be more motivated to behave unethically to increase their resources or overcome their disadvantages.
As the researchers found, "We reason that increased resources and independence from others cause people to prioritize self-interest over others' welfare ... which in turn gives rise to increased unethical behavior."
All of which sounds like an indictment of successful people, at least in terms of financial and self-perceived status.
But it's not. I know a number of people whose success affords them the ability to drive extremely expensive cars. People whose success could cause other people to look the other way when they do something jerk-ish or even unethical. Who would not only be forgiven but sometimes even admired for placing more emphasis on the end than the means.
Yet they don't--because for them, financial and social-status success is a by-product, not the driver. Like Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett: His primary goal has always been to play music with his friends. Everything else--fame, fortune, and public acclaim--is the admittedly considerable gravy. Or Stephen King, who became rich decades ago. Well into his 70s, he keeps writing a book or two a year because he loves to tell stories.
Or like all the successful entrepreneurs who started businesses in order to live the life they they wanted to live. Financial success is just one outcome.
The primary driver? A greater sense of professional freedom and autonomy.
All of which might sound interesting but not particularly useful, except for this: Every day, scores of people get promoted who want the title, not the job. Who want the business card. Who want the office. Who want the "stuff" that comes with the position.
Who, by extension, are more likely to be self-serving rather than servants of the people they will lead.
Who, as the researchers write, may be more likely to feel entitled and be inattentive to the consequences of their actions on others, and to have less concern for how others perceive them.
Your goal? Promote the people who want the job because they want the greater responsibility for making things happen.
Promote the people who want the job because they want to do the job.
Who, just like owning a fancy car, just want the title because the title makes it easier for them to do the work.