Do Nice Guys -- and Gals -- Really Finish Last?

fjhjhImage via WikipediaIt has been more than 60 years since Leo Durocher reputedly made that crack (later to claim it was misunderstood) -- and, notwithstanding the remark's baseball context, nowhere did it gain more currency than in the assertive, competitive culture of business. Nowadays, when business books have titles like The  Kindness Revolution or The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness, are Leo the Lip's words still apt?.

Surprisingly, discouragingly, yes, according to new research that analyzes the relationship between how much people earn and how agreeable they are.

To be presented at the forthcoming annual meeting of the Academy of Management (San Antonio, Aug. 14-16), the research finds that agreeable workers have considerably lower incomes than less agreeable ones, and that the gap is especially wide among men. Nice gals may not earn quite as much as less-nice gals, but, when it comes to guys, Leo was prophetic: disagreeable guys simply leave agreeable ones in the dust.

"Nice guys do not necessarily finish last, but they do finish a distant second in terms of earnings," conclude the study's authors, Beth A. Livingston of Cornell University, Timothy A. Judge of the University of Notre Dame, and Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario. They find that "men who are one standard deviation [roughly 20 percentage points] below the mean on agreeableness earn an average of 18.31% ($9,772) more than men one standard deviation above the mean on agreeableness. Meanwhile, the 'disagreeableness premium' for women was only 5.47% ($1,828). Thus, the income premium for disagreeableness is more than three times stronger for men than for women."

The professors concede the finding to be a bit puzzling. "Given the increasing reliance of organizations on teams, " they write, "it would seem that people high in agreeableness would have at least a slight economic advantage over those low in agreeableness." Why, then, have scholars not "offered more than a minimal explanation" for its absence? To a significant extent, the study suggests, because they have not fully appreciated the powerful effect of masculine stereotypes on men's earnings.

"Disagreeable men reap a double benefit," the professors write. "Their disagreeableness helps them better translate their human capital into earnings advantage, and the same behavior conforms to expectations of 'masculine' behavior." By the same token "agreeable men are disproportionately disadvantaged" because their agreeableness "conflicts with social norms of masculinity."

Not that this anomaly provides an opportunity for women to greatly close the earnings gap between the sexes. "Seen from the perspective of gender equity, even the nice guys seem to be making out quite well relative to either agreeable or disagreeable women," the professors write. "Thus, exhortations for women not to be nice might be overblown. Nice girls might not get rich, but 'mean' girls do not do much better. Even controlling for human capital, marital status, and occupation, highly disagreeable women do not earn as much as highly agreeable men."

The paper's findings emerge from analysis of data collected over a span of almost 20 years in four different surveys -- one of young workers that was carried out by the University of Chicago from 1997 to 2008; one of workers aged 25 to 74 conducted in the 1990s by Harvard Medical School; a University of Wisconsin survey of men and women who graduated from high schools in the state in 1957 and were followed into the 1990s; and a survey of 460 business students carried out only last year at a university in the southeastern United States.

In the three studies of workers, data analysis revealed much the same state of affairs: women earn substantially less than men; workers who score high on agreeableness by describing themselves as agreeable or helpful or friendly or warm or caring or softhearted earn significantly less than those who tend not to describe themselves in such terms; and agreeableness proves to have a far more powerful negative effect on men's earnings than on women's.

More surprising than any of these were the results of the survey of business students carried out last year.

"The results from the surveys in the 1990s reflect the influence of stereotypes that have become familiar over time," comments Prof. Livingston. "What was much more surprising -- and somewhat disheartening as well -- was to see how powerful those stereotypes continue to be among young people today."

Students in a large business management class, called upon to act as human resource managers for a fictional company, were each presented with single-paragraph descriptions of eight entry-level candidates for a consultant position. Participants were randomly assigned descriptions of  eight female or eight male candidates (to disguise the gender component of the study) and were asked which ones should be placed on a fast track to management. All the candidates were described in some way as conscientious, smart, and insightful, and all the paragraphs ended with a few words related to trust, straightforwardness, modesty, and compliance or their opposites -- for example, "Observation: He (She) seems to be candid and trusting,"  Or,  "Observation: His (Her) natural competitiveness was apparent," Or, "He (She) exhibited his (her) self-interest during the interview."

In assessing the fast-track potential of candidates, the business students were somewhat more likely to favor men over women. Markedly stronger was their aversion to agreeableness, particularly among men. In the case of women candidates, in fact, it mattered little, if at all, whether they were agreeable or not. But, while male candidates low in agreeableness were considerably more likely than women to get the students' nod for the fast track, the opposite in spades was the case for men who were described as highly agreeable.

Since men are most affected by the business world's continuing prejudice against agreeableness, how should they respond to the study? "Certainly nice guys should forswear any wholesale personality makeover, even if such a thing is possible," comments Prof. Livingston. "What would obviously make sense is to maintain their good nature without compromising their self-interest. For example, suppose they contribute significantly to the success of a project. Agreeable people sometimes have a tendency to hide their light under a bushel. But there are ways to make sure that one's contribution is recognized without being disagreeable about it. "

She adds: "In the end, agreeable folks may make less money than they deserve, but even disagreeable people know that money isn't everything. Leo Durocher could certainly be disagreeable, but even he insisted he didn't really mean that nice guys always finish last."

The study, entitled “Do Nice Guys -- and Gals -- Really Finish Last? The Joint Effects of Sex and Agreeableness on Income," will be as among several thousand research reports at the Academy of Management annual meeting, to be held in San Antonio from August 14th to 16th.  Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has more than 19,000 members in 102 countries, including about 11,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting will draw more than 9,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related topics

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