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The Upside and Downside of Being Nice at Work

There is a real paradox in our relationship with the quality of being nice. On the one hand, parents want their kids to be nice. On the other hand, there is a clear sense that being nice can sometimes be a disadvantage.
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There is a real paradox in our relationship with the quality of being nice. On the one hand, parents want their kids to be nice. Just the other day, I was walking the dog and two boys were playing in the front yard. One said something mean to the other, and the mother (who was watching from the porch) said, "Be nice." On the other hand, there is a clear sense that being nice can sometimes be a disadvantage. This is summed up best by Leo Durocher's quote, "Nice guys finish last."

In psychology, the quality of being nice is most closely allied with the personality dimension of agreeableness. People who are agreeable value getting along with others and cultivate relationships with other people. People who are disagreeable are less interested in getting along and are more likely to be critical of other people's ideas.

How does being nice affect your work life?

This question was addressed in an interesting paper by Timothy Judge, Beth Livingston and Charlice Hurst in the February 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In a series of studies, they were interested in three questions. First, does being nice affect your success at work? Second, does being nice affect your happiness at work? Third, do the effects of being nice differ for men and women?

In three studies, the researchers used survey data to look at the relationship between income and being nice. They looked at this separately for men and women. The results were consistent across these studies. First, they found that overall men made more money than women. This difference reflects a persistent gender gap in income that has been observed in many studies. Second, men who were high in the trait of agreeableness made substantially less money than men who were low in agreeableness. In some studies, this difference was as much as $10,000 per year.

In contrast, women were much less affected by agreeableness. There was still a tendency for women high in agreeableness to make less money than women low in agreeableness. However, this difference was small and often not statistically reliable.

Across studies, the researchers controlled for many other factors that might have affected these results including other personality traits, the type of job, education level and marital status. The influence of being nice on earnings held up even taking these other factors into account.

Of course, making money is only one marker of success at work. We spend about a third of our adult lives working, and so we also want to enjoy that time. One of the studies in this series also measured people's happiness and satisfaction at work. Overall, people high in agreeableness were happier at work than those who were low in agreeableness. So, there is a tradeoff. The factors that may lead you to make more money may also make you less happy.

Why does being nice hurt income, particularly for men? For one thing, agreeable people may be less likely to push themselves forward for advancement. In addition, agreeable people tend to do more selfless things at work. Unfortunately, doing things for the good of the group may not always get them noticed when it comes time to give out raises and bonuses.

But why are men hurt more by being nice than women? One possibility is that people expect men to strive at work. Men who push themselves forward in work situations are acting consistently with the stereotype for male behavior. Men who are being nice are acting inconsistently. There may be a bias to promote men who are acting in a stereotypically male way.

To test this possibility, the researchers did a fourth study in which they had business students evaluate job candidates for a management track in a company. Participants either evaluated eight descriptions of men or eight descriptions of women (so that it would not be clear that the study was about gender). Half the candidates were described as agreeable, while the other half were described as disagreeable. When the participants evaluated women for the management track, their judgments were not affected by whether the candidate was described as agreeable or disagreeable. However, when the participants evaluated men, they were much more likely to put the disagreeable men on the management track than to put the agreeable men on the management track.

Clearly, then, for men who are looking to maximize how much they earn, there is an advantage to being disagreeable. Interestingly, it doesn't look like there is much advantage for women to be disagreeable. There are two things to add to this discussion, though. First, remember that people who are disagreeable are also generally less happy at work than people who are agreeable. Second, while disagreeable men make more money than agreeable men, it is not clear from these results whether they are actually more effective at work. That is, agreeable guys may just not promote themselves as effectively as disagreeable ones.

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