Research Finds That “Nice Guys” Are Less Successful — But Is That So?

A recent study reported that “nice guys” who are “agreeable” achieve less success in their careers than those who are more rude, dominating, aggressive, hostile and dismissive of others. But is that so? I think the researchers’ findings reflect some confusion about the traits and behavior that underlie the most productive and successful careers and companies in today’s evolving workplace.

A team from Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Notre Dame and the University of Western Ontario conducted the study. They surveyed people’s self-reported descriptions of their level of “agreeableness.” The researchers found that men who rated themselves “highly agreeable” earned less money than men who described themselves as less so — on average, about 18 percent less annually. The gap was found among women as well, but to a lesser degree. Regarding these findings, one of the study’s co-authors, Beth A. Livingston, concluded that “Nice guys are getting the shaft.”

But how, exactly, did the researchers define “nice” or “agreeable” in the study? Moreover, it’s notable that defined “success” solely in terms of income, and that may not be the criteria that everyone uses — especially since the post-2008 crash.

The researchers asked the participants to rate themselves along several related dimensions, such as “agreeable” vs. “quarrelsome;” “difficult” vs. “cooperative;” and “stubborn vs. flexible.” One problem with this is the wide variation among people’s self-definitions of “agreeable,” “cooperative,” and so forth. And, those traits were contrasted with traits the researchers provided to reflect the other end of the scale, which prevented considering that such “opposite” traits might co-exist in a person. But overall, I think the researchers failed to understand today’s changing workplace — how the highly fluid, intensely competitive, interconnected, unpredictable business and economic environment shapes the criteria for success.

That is, a more accurate interpretation of the findings that linked “nice guys” with less financial success is this: People who chose “agreeableness” and related descriptions as better descriptions of themselves then the alternatives they were given, like “stubborn” or “quarrelsome” (even though they aren’t mutually exclusive, as I explain below), are likely to share some traits. They’re likely to be less pro-active; more complacent and less assertive in their roles than others who are more successful, innovative and productive in their careers.

To explain, the researchers seem to have assumed that being “nice” — as they envision it — means being passive or less actively engaged. Hence, Dr. Livingston’s comment that men who are too “agreeable” may not conform “…to expectations of ‘masculine behavior,” and that such men may be less successful because they’re not living up to longstanding expectations that men be aggressive, combative or even rude.

However, the reality of successful companies today trends towards a different, more complex direction: towards people and leaders who embody on the one hand, assertiveness, engagement, passion, high energy, and self-assurrance; and, on the other, collaboration, positive team relationships, keeping their ego in check, and willingness to put their energies and skills into serving the larger enterprise.

The latter traits are less characteristic of inhibited, demure and passive people. And their career success and financial rewards are likely to be more limited. But the successful traits go hand-in-hand with “niceness” in the sense of demonstrating respect, mutual support, working together towards common goals. In short, you can be highly engaged, collaborative and pro-active; but not dominating, controlling, or a jerk. These are the features of people who increasingly populate today’s organizations — what I’ve called the rise of the 4.0 career orientation in a previous post.

In today’s business and career environment, one will see strong argument, debate and highly charged discussion around decisions and projects. But all of that goes hand-in-hand with civility and mutuality; all necessary for teams to perform at high levels. Kathy Savit, CEO of Lockerz, a Seattle-based company, pointed this out when she emphasized the difference between being respectful and being agreeable. “We are not about being ‘nice’ or ‘agreeable’… we have a lot of robust debates about all kinds of things. But we do stress the notion of being respectful.”

Being “nice” or “agreeable” in ways that lead to success means being open, flexible, collaborative, and non-defensive; along with high energy, creative innovation, and commitment to new learning — generally, highly pro-active behavior, the orientation that Thomas Friedman described in a recent column as, “The Start-Up of You.”

Of course, there’s often a fine line between self-assurance, conviction… and arrogance. Steve Jobs was recently described as having both — “…the last great tyrant,” as David Streitfeld described him in the New York Times. But Jobs is likely to have kept his self-assurance on the productive side of self-destructive, narcissistic arrogance. We’ve seen the latter topple some CEO’s careers and their company’s success.

In fact, research finds that the negative side of the Type A personality and extreme Alpha Male behavior are not very successful in today’s work culture. Nor are they healthy. For example, the Alpha Male has a high level of physiological and emotional stress and is more prone to heart disease and a host of other problems.

The True Links Between Personal Traits and Success

Overall, considerable research and other observations of workplace behavior supports the alternative finding, that “niceness” is linked with success. Some examples:

  • People who maintain positive moods and attitudes perform more effectively in the workplace. They create greater profitability, customer satisfaction and peer-rated performance. An atmosphere of rudeness and disrespect undermines success.
  • Vigorous, engaged, but collegial discussion and argument lead to more effective problem-solving. However, that’s diminished when the tone of interactions is negatively competitive.
  • More broadly, positive leadership is linked with increased levels of employee health and well being. And speaking of health, research also finds that collaboration and positive workplace relations can increase your lifespan.
  • As far as relationships outside of work, the rude, hostile and arrogant behavior that the Cornell research team concluded was more “successful,” doesn’t do so well at home, either. It’s found to unleash uncivil behavior upon family members, and contributes to domestic dysfunction.

In fact, there’s evidence that the more people feel devalued at work, whether by peers or management practices, the less energy goes into creating value and contributing to the product or service. Top performers recognize such negatives, and that often leads to their leaving the organization.

I’m interested in hearing about your own experiences and observations, in your comments, below. Meanwhile, try staying “nice,” mutually supportive….and highly assertive!