The Truth About Business: Nice Gals Finish Last

The Truth About Business:

Nice Gals Finish Last

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Most of us would like to work for a company where we can trust leadership and fellow coworkers. After all we spend the better part of our lives at the office so a modicum of general goodwill and decorum is sensible. But can companies fit that description and still obtain their goals and profits that shareholders expect? When it comes to success, many, albeit sadly, assume that reaching the top requires ethical compromises.

Thoughts of Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko character from the film Wall Street, and his slicked-back hair are an apt metaphor for unfettered ambition and greed. Gekko’s famous line: “Greed Is Good,” firmly remains a part of the American lexicon that it continues to inspire young Wall Street brokers nearly 20 years after its release.

According to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Beth A. Livingston of Cornell, Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario, and Timothy A. Judge of Notre Dame, levels of “agreeableness” are negatively correlated with the earnings of men. The defined terms, of which there are six facets to agreeableness, are: trust, altruism, compliance, straightforwardness, tender-mindedness and modesty.

Do nice gals finish last?

Why might “niceness” be a disadvantage? It helps to understand the essence of disagreeableness. Being disagreeable does not necessarily mean that you’re dealing with a sociopath, far from it. It simply means that “disagreeableness” is the willingness, however uncomfortable it may make others feel, to aggressively advocate for their interests during conflicts.

Conversely, more agreeable people are much more likely to compromise for the good of the group. While conflict is never enjoyable, their disagreeable coworkers insist on holding firm. They do not mind fighting for what they want. To more clearly define the relationship between agreeableness and income, the researchers began with a data set consisting of nearly 9,000 people who entered the labor force over the decade from 2,000 thru 2,010.

The subjects were repeatedly interviewed about their career and given a battery of personality and cognitive tests. Levels of agreeableness, for example, were measured with a standard set of questions, such as, “Do you feel that agreeable describes you as a person, where 1 means quarrelsome and 5 means agreeable?” These ratings were then compared to income data.

The results were depressing

The study’s first notable revelation was that women entering the workforce earn much less than men. Even after controlling for education, marital status, hours worked per week and workforce continuity, young women still earned $4,787 less than their male counterparts, or an average loss of 14 percent. Worse still was the news for agreeable men: nearly $7,000 less than their agreeable peers, whereas agreeable women were not quite as bad off, earning $1,100 less. In a series of follow-up studies, the researchers replicated their results, showing that agreeable men earn less even after controlling for a long list of variables, including other personality traits and the possibility that agreeable people choose less lucrative professions. The researchers summarized their data:

“Overall, across the first three studies, men who are one standard deviation below the mean on agreeableness earn an average of 18.31 percent ($9,772) more than men one standard deviation above the mean on agreeableness. Meanwhile, the “disagreeableness premium” for women was only 5.47 percent ($1,828). Thus, the income premium for disagreeableness is more than three times stronger for men than for women.”

More bad findings…

What’s driving this bleak correlation? In their final study, the researchers conducted an experiment on 460 undergrads in a business management class at a large American  university. The students were given eight hypothetical job candidates, all of whom were described as smart, conscientious and insightful. However, their degrees of agreeableness were varied so that some candidates were described as much more trusting and humble than others. These 460 undergrads were then asked to select the best candidates for management fast-tracking.

Yet again, the study results were depressing: the candidates with higher levels of agreeableness  were much less likely to get fast-tracked, especially if they were male (Women were slightly less likely to get picked for promotion regardless of their personality). This suggests that nice guys finish last because of an inherent bias against them.

Agreeable people are less likely to get fired, and are just as likely to supervise others. They appear far less effective at negotiating salary increases, thus suggesting that the main (financial) benefit of disagreeableness is a willingness to stubbornly fight for one’s own best interests, even as it may make others uncomfortable.

Furthermore, the researchers argue that agreeableness is especially costly for men because it violates our gender expectations, since it is assumed that men will selfishly pursue their interests, albeit generalizations-cloaked, we tend to look down on those men who do not. In short, we expect the worst and punish the best.

What can we learn?

Some people find it difficult to hold firm, particularly when it involves asking for a promotion, or a pay increase. But it’s well worth the anxiety-inducing moments that can help to push beyond self-limitations toward the path of self-enlightenment and strength. So let’s embrace the challenge of pushing beyond needless self-limitation and perhaps enjoy an additional few thousand dollars pay increase. 

Stephen Doyle

"Steve Doyle, originally from Philadelphia, holds a B.A. Professional Writing from Penn State University. He's a blogger, short-story writer and has created several hundred marketing content pieces for clients such as: JC Ehrlich, Ambius, Henckels & McCoy, DDC Group, Burns Logistics Solutions, Inc., etc. Steve is an award-winning, highly skilled communicator who loves to help get others' stories told in as an engaging manner as possible."

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