Being the Nice Guy Will Cost You $10,000

Aug 15, 2011
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

“‘Niceness’ — in the form of the trait of agreeableness –does not appear to pay.”

Not at all. In fact, it costs to be agreeable, especially if you’re a man. How much? On average, $9,772 annually, says a study presented today to the Academy of Management, meeting in Texas.

Three researchers analyzed 20 years of data collected in three different surveys of some 10,000 workers to find that men, and to a lesser extent, women rated as agreeable earned less than their more disagreeable colleagues.

A fourth survey, conducted by the researchers themselves using students acting as HR managers, found that, with the only difference among candidates for an entry-level, fast-track position into management being their agreeableness, “agreeable candidates were less likely to be recommended for advancement.”

Gender plays a role in this, note the researchers in their aptly titled paper, Do Nice Guys – and Gals – Really Finish Last? The Joint Effects of Sex and Agreeableness on Income. However, the income gap between agreeable and disagreeable women, at $1,828, is far less than it is for men.

These days, when companies claim to place a premium on collaboration and teamwork, “it would seem that people high in agreeableness would have at least a slight economic advantage over those low in agreeableness. The fact that researchers repeatedly report the opposite is puzzling,” write the authors of the paper.

They suggest a few possibilities for the disparity, including weaker bargaining for salary by the more agreeable types, a greater focus on building relationships rather than advancing themselves, and they simply may be less verbally assertive in meetings.

Although altruistic behaviors are a facet of performance, they involve self-sacrifice and are often not rewarded. Voice behaviors may, on the other hand, attract rewards, particularly when they are directed toward persuading others of the value of one’s ideas.

Here’s one observation you can test in your own workplace. According to the authors, citing research by others, note that “people who were highly critical of others were rated as more competent than those offering favorable evaluations.”

Does that hold true where you work? Are the managers who do the toughest performance reviews paid more and more likely to advance than those who are less critical?

“People who are low in agreeableness may be perceived as more competent by virtue of their lack of warmth,” the authors write. And this phenomenon  holds true for recruiters and hiring managers. Citing a 2001 study, the authors observe, “people recommended a higher-status position and higher pay for job applicants who expressed anger — a display that is more likely among disagreeable people.”

Other studies, not to mention the personal experience of millions of workers, attest to the cost of bosses who are disagreeable to the point of being unreasonable. Administrative staffing firm OfficeTeam published a survey that found 46 percent of American employees have worked for an unreasonable boss in their career. Some just quit outright. The majority — 59 percent — stayed and either tried to deal with it or just lived with it.

In the United Kingdom, a study by the government there found that worker stress was costing $42.2 billion (U.S.) annually in lost time, productivity, and worker turnover. The leading cause of workplace stress: line managers.

Disagreeable people may well be bad bosses, but they are probably not the cinematic version of Horrible Bosses. As the authors of the study note, “People low in agreeableness are basically amicable. They are just slightly more likely than people high in trait agreeableness to behave disagreeably in certain situations by, for instance, aggressively advocating for their position during conflicts.”

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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