This 1 Personality Trait May Hold You Back At Work. Is It You?

A viral TikTok suggests that people with this characteristic are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting ahead. Here's why and when it really becomes a problem.
Can being too nice at work be the reason you're not advancing? That's according to one recent TikTok.
ciricvelibor via Getty Images
Can being too nice at work be the reason you're not advancing? That's according to one recent TikTok.

Are you a “pleasure to work with”?

That could be why you’re not getting ahead at work ― even if you’re good at your job ― according to one viral TikTok.

In the video, a TikToker named Jacqueline claims that people who are “a pleasure to work with” will “never get promoted” because executives “will never allow an employee who is both good at doing the work and good at keeping a smile on their face while doing the work move up the ladder, because they know they can keep serving you shit on a platter, and you’ll eat it with a smile.”


but if I take a week off everything falls apart? it ain’t adding up

♬ original sound - jacqueline

Her theory about the “curse” of being too pleasant has sparked a nerve. The video has been viewed more than 8 million times. But is it backed up by research? Are agreeable people more likely to be exploited and fall behind at work? It depends, experts say.

Why nice, competent people do, sometimes, finish last at work.

In response to the TikTok, commenters to her video said that what Jacqueline was describing actually has a name: “performance punishment.” Similar to a “quiet promotion,” it’s where you get more work dumped on you for being a high-achiever, but you do not get the rewards of a raise or a promotion.

In this case, hardworking agreeable colleagues take on work that consistently goes above and beyond their job title.

Cynthia Pong, founder of Embrace Change, a career coaching and training firm, said a performance punishment mindset in organizations “does exist and can even run rampant.”

“There absolutely is a perverse incentive there for leaders who would prefer that person to stay in the role where the high achiever is extremely competent, reliable and pleasant,” she said, noting that it can be due to the manager worrying if the workload is going to be done or done “with a smile” if other people do it instead.

Lois P. Frankel, executive coach and author of “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers,” said there is a “kernel of truth” to the TikToker’s theory because being nice is “simply not sufficient for upward mobility.

“Being nice and good at your job are ... just table stakes. You’ll most likely get to stay in the game, but you won’t win it,” Frankel said.

She noted that it’s often women who face a social stereotype to be “nice,” which can backfire in the office: “You can’t be the nice little girl you were taught to be in childhood and expect to achieve your adult goals.”

In this way, if your niceness is making you too agreeable to what other co-workers demand, it’s a problem.

Signs you are a pushover and how to break out of the cycle.

There’s a key tipping point when your agreeable nature is leading you to become a pushover at work. Pong said if the following is true, you might be one:

  • Your needs always come last.
  • You avoid conflict at all costs.
  • You feel resentful about your workload.
  • The gulf between what you say and how you really feel inside is significant, or widening.
  • Even the thought of saying ‘no’ to a request at work gives you anxiety.

One way to break out of the pushover cycle is to set boundaries that will help you prioritize your own career needs.

“Before you say ‘yes’ to tasks, events, and even conversations at work, pause and take a few minutes to reply,” advised career strategist Ana Goehner said. “If the task will not help you become more visible, learn new skills, challenge you, or add to your career, then politely say no.”

But once you turn down a request, you need to show your value in other ways.

“Look for opportunities to not simply do your job but add value by questioning less effective ways of doing things, and proposing new ways that would save or make your company money,” Frankel advised. “Now you’re not just nice, you’re also strategic.”

Frankel said to actively volunteer for high-profile assignments, even if these bigger bets could fail: “You’re either going to be seen as a hero if you succeed, or brave if things don’t quite turn out the way you hoped.”

Pong said it also helps to get the help of a public-facing sponsor who can back you up and help you get promoted if you’re meeting resistance.

Keep in mind that jerks don’t necessarily get ahead at work, either.

If you are too agreeable, you may become the pushover your colleagues exploit to further their own careers. But simply bulldozing your way up the ranks with your unpleasant, brash demeanor is not a good career strategy, either.

In his 2020 study, Cameron Anderson, a professor of organizational behavior at the Haas School of Business at University of California, Berkeley, measured college and graduate students’ selfish, combative, manipulative personalities prior to getting jobs, and then assessed the power and rank they held at work 14 years later.

Anderson found that disagreeableness did not give people a leg up at their jobs, even in more cutthroat environments.

“Disagreeable people are no more ― or less ― likely to gain power because they engage in two kinds of behaviors that have offsetting effects,” Anderson told HuffPost. “On the one hand, they are intimidating to others. This would have helped them gain power, except that their behavior also repels others. Their colleagues and coworkers maintain a distance from them, which isolates them and reduces their power.”

In this way, the TikToker’s argument that “people who are a pleasure to work with will never get promoted” is “just flat wrong,” Anderson said, because it is “irrelevant to getting ahead. Other traits matter far more.”

The personality trait you actually need to get promoted.

Anderson said there is actually one personality trait that will determine how far ahead you get at work, and it’s not dependent on how pleasant you are to work with.

He said assertiveness is the key personality trait associated with gaining power. He defines it as “being self-assured, confident and forceful.”

“It doesn’t mean being aggressive or bullying, but instead means believing in your abilities and ideas and pushing for yourself,” he explained. “If you are assertive, you are more likely to gain power, regardless of whether you are agreeable or disagreeable.”

So don’t count yourself out if you have a reputation for being nice. It is still possible to be collegial and powerful.

Anderson gave the example of imagining a leader you admire. Often it might be “someone who cares about their people, treats their people with respect, but who is also a strong leader and is willing to make difficult decisions and to fight for their people,” he said.

In other words, pleasant people can be effective leaders when they are able to demonstrate both pleasantness ― or respect and concern for their people ― and assertiveness, or being willing to fight for them.

It’s a good lesson for those who worry they are too nice to climb the ranks ― plenty of nice people outlast and outwit the jerks, but those leaders have the assertiveness to back up their pleasant charm.

“Many workplaces often mistake pleasant and quiet people for weak and powerless [people],” Goehner said. But in fact, “most people value and remember leaders who were nice to them, including those who have shown humility, vulnerability and support. It’s all about what type of leader you want to be and what people say about you when you are not in the room.”

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