Is Being Nice Bad for You?

Would you be nasty to earn more money?

According to a study by several researchers, “agreeable” workers earn significantly lower salaries than their less agreeable counterparts, with the gap being wider among men.

The study, titled “Do Nice Guys—and Gals—Really Finish Last?”, used survey data to examine “agreeableness” and found that men who disagreed far greater make 18%- or $9,772 annually- more in salary than those who agree. The salary disparity is far less among women, with disagreeable females making 5% or $1,828 than those who agree more. Perhaps being disagreeable is more acceptable in males and therefore more rewarded?

Cornell professor Beth A. Livingston, who co-authored the study with Timothy A. Judge of the University of Notre Dame and Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario said:

The problem is, many managers often don’t realize they reward disagreeableness,” Livingston added. “You can say this is what you value as a company, but your compensation system may not really reflect that, especially if you leave compensation decisions to individual managers.”

The study contained data from over 20 years from three different surveys, and interviewed 10,000 workers from a wide range of fields. The researchers also included a separate study  based on 460 business students asked to be fictional managers and review descriptions of possible employees. That separate study  revealed that being nice does not bring professional success, as those viewed as more agreeable were less likely to get the job.

To be honest, I’m amazed. What does it mean for women who want to advance? Does it mean that we have to behave contrary to our instincts if we want to progress?

Professor Simon Baron Cohen is an expert in the field of autism. In his fascinating book on gender differences  ‘The Essential Difference‘ he talks about the male brain and the female brain. The premise of his book is:

The female brain is predominantly hard wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard wired for understanding and building systems.

Most of us, he posits,  fall somewhere in between. Baron-Cohen says empathy makes real communication possible, it makes the world go round, means people help each other out and so on. Lack of empathy he says can lead to aggression and bullying. The plus points of the male brain are being good at systems leads to creating efficient tools, making things work more efficiently. Good systemisers are also skilled at understanding and exploiting natural systems.

The U.S. studies which show being less agreeable contributes to success raises more than a few issues for women:

One, do we measure success by income? To a degree we do and women have always earned significantly less than men. Raising that as an issue (as I do frequently) implies that we accept that premise. Income is one way to assess and compare how well someone is doing.

Two, if we women are hard-wired to be empathetic can we ever reach the top of our profession yet still be true to ourselves? Is the only way up to become more male in our behaviour?

And three, does this fact merely represent the reality that male behaviours are rewarded much more than female behaviours in the business world?  Is it part of institutionalised sexism? Does aggression really produce better results or do people just assume it produces better results (extreme macho behaviour which incidentally some women are also very good at using) and therefore reward it with higher incomes?

What do you think?

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Photo Credit: S.P Veres

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Posted on February 21st, 2012 by

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