Agreeable people are more likely to succeed at work than their aggressive peers. Find out why two studies show that nice guys don’t finish last after all.
These days, I’m looking back over a long career. I can remember at least three occasions when very earnest people told me that I was one of those overly agreeable people. The first time was when a college roommate sympathetically warned me that I was “too nice.”
On another occasion, my supervisor told me that I was “too accommodating” to my project’s stakeholders. The third time, one of my staff said to me that my “kindness is mistaken for weakness.”
I’m no longer in a position where I have to worry about those kinds of things. That’s given me a more accurate outlook on many past events.
Agreeable People Are Generally More Successful at Work
At the risk of indulging in schadenfreude, all three people suffered significant setbacks in their own careers due to their poor working relationships. Each of their failures came not long after solicitously sharing their advice with me.
My own observations lead me to believe that agreeable people are generally more successful than their aggressive peers. I do score very high on agreeableness on the personality test psychologists consider the gold standard. Mind you, I also score “exceptionally high” on intellect, so that has to give us all pause!
We’ve discussed in these pages before how anthropology shows that friendly people are more valuable in hunter-gatherer societies. The stereotypical alpha male leader depicted in caveman movies is a myth. Now, we see evidence from the modern world that’s entirely consistent with those findings.
Students Had Taken Well-Regarded Personality Inventory
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has just published a paper that confirms my impressions about agreeable people. The paper documents two studies tracking students from three universities who had taken that same well-regarded personality inventory.
One of the paper’s co-authors is Professor Oliver John. He’s the one who developed the inventory as part of his role leading the Berkeley Personality Lab.
Professor Cameron Anderson of the Berkeley-Haas school of business is another co-author of the study. He summarized the results this way, “My advice to managers would be to pay attention to agreeableness as an important qualification for positions of power and leadership.”
Results Go Against a Widespread School of Thought
Professor Anderson went on to say, “Prior research is clear: Agreeable people in power produce better outcomes.” Or, more bluntly, bosses “allow jerks to gain power at the same rate as anyone else, even though jerks in power can do serious damage to the organization.”
This goes against a widespread school of thought. For example, advocates of Winning Through Intimidation (a 1970s best-selling self-help book) often use Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and his abrasive personality as an exemplar.
As the paper explains, many impressionable people point to Jobs and say, “Maybe if I become an even bigger asshole, I’ll be successful like Steve.” The evidence suggests otherwise.
Interviewed Former Students About Influence and Status
The research team followed up with the students with low agreeableness scores fourteen years after taking their personality tests. They interviewed each former student about their influence and status at work and their employers’ corporate culture.
As a reality check, they also talked to the participants’ colleagues about their work status and conduct. The assessments were remarkably consistent with the participants’ self-assessments.
In every case, they found that those who scored low on agreeableness were no more likely to succeed in business. The generous, trustworthy and “too nice,” agreeable people on their team had the same chance or better of getting ahead.
Nice Guys Don’t Finish Last After All
Nice guys don’t finish last, after all. This was true for everyone everywhere, regardless of sex, race, nationality, business line, or corporate culture.
The study’s findings mirror those of the anthropological studies we’ve shared in previous articles. Agreeable people focus on relationships, sharing and competence, all of which build cultural cohesion.
Disagreeable people may be able to climb a rung or two of the corporate ladder through intimidation. Even so, before long, their lack of people skills holds them back.
Disagreeable People Are Deplorable Role Models
Unfortunately, sometimes it doesn’t hold them back until it’s too late. When jerks become bosses, they “are abusive, prioritize their own self-interests, create corrupt cultures and, ultimately, cause their organizations to fail.”
Disagreeable people are also deplorable role models within their organizations and for our society. They tend to surround themselves with incompetent sycophants.
Worse, they unwittingly encourage those who look to them for their example to indulge in corruption and exploitation themselves. Dishonest mentors often can’t trust their own proteges. Agreeable people avoid this trap.
Disloyalty Breeds Disloyalty
In the comedic film Yellowbeard, the despicable title character ends up being murdered by his own son. His sentimental last words are, “Killin’ your father as I killed my father before me!”
The line is farce, but it reflects the harsh truth that disloyalty breeds disloyalty. Those who win through intimidation may eventually lose through the intimidation skills they foster in their own staff.
It’s possible that I’m engaging in cherry-picking by reviewing this study. We’re all susceptible to confirmation bias.
Makes Me Feel Better About My Own Weaknesses
I may just like this study because it makes me feel better about my own weaknesses. Even so, I think we can all benefit from at least considering what may be counterintuitive research for many people.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Being a selfish jerk doesn’t get you ahead, research finds
People with disagreeable personalities (selfish, combative, and manipulative) do not have an advantage in pursuing power at work
Hunter-Gatherer Culture and Storytellers
Friendly People Ensured Human Survival
Friendly Faces Drove Human Evolution