Careers: Why being Mr. Nice Guy doesn't pay

If you're an agreeable worker, your career arc might have a lower ceiling—especially if you're a man.


(Photo: Ebby May/Getty)

One of the biggest clichés in the business world is “nice guys finish last.” It’s a slightly grating phrase—with a particularly pitiable tenor—but there is some truth to it: while nice guys don’t exactly end up at the bottom of the corporate heap, they’re definitely not on top. A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that “agreeable” men—those with a combination of traits such as trustworthiness, altruism, modesty and compliance—make significantly less money on average than their more self-interested peers. (The same was not true of women, however.) “Niceness,” writes Timothy Judge, lead author of the study, “does not appear to pay.”

Judge, a professor of management at the University of Notre Dame, is quick to note that being disagreeable (that is, ranking low on things like altruism and modesty) does not necessarily make one a jerk. Instead, people who fall into this category place less value on personal relationships, and are more likely to advance their own interests (read: pay and promotion) even at the risk of upsetting social harmony.

Judge and his colleagues sifted through a series of long-range demographic studies that followed thousands of Americans over the years, collecting data on their personalities and incomes. By examining the link between the subjects’ dispositions and how much they earned, the researchers found that men who were slightly more agreeable than the mean earned 18% less on average—that’s US$9,772 less than their more disagreeable peers. For women, the salary premium for being disagreeable was just over 5%, or $1,828.

Judge suspects that nice guys aren’t as likely to pursue or excel in prestigious, high-paying jobs, and are held back by gender norms. In blunt terms, warmth and caring are not traits traditionally associated with masculinity, and men who deviate from the norm pay a price. We also associate certain stereotypical masculine behaviours with success. Previous studies have shown that people who provide criticism in the workplace are perceived as more competent than those offering praise or encouragement. Another found that people who showed anger during mock job interviews were offered better positions with higher pay.

For men who feel they are being held back because of their agreeable nature, there are a few fixes. “It’s about looking ahead to situations in which you may default into certain people-pleasing behaviours,” says Mikael Meir, a leadership coach in Toronto. For instance, meetings to discuss ideas or new proposals can be an opportunity to exercise constructive criticism. Diplomatically addressing flaws or oversights, while offering solutions, can go a long way to eliminating a reputation for being passive.

The implications of the study are more complicated for women, however. Judge writes that women essentially face a “no-win” situation: their pay is lower than that of their male counterparts to begin with, and they also have less to gain by adopting disagreeable behaviour. This, too, could be explained by gender stereotypes. Women are “supposed” to be modest and altruistic, and because self-interest in the workplace violates those norms, women can be penalized if they don’t fit the standard.

Judge recommends that women pick and choose when they assert themselves—such as during salary negotiations—rather than adopt a wholesale shift into disagreeableness. Indeed, previous studies have shown that women who adjust their level of assertiveness to match that of their negotiating partner during the process, rather than acting overly aggressive or passive throughout, will achieve better results for themselves.

To some extent, the degree to which someone chooses to adjust his or her behaviour in the workplace comes down to personal preference. According to the study, being slightly more difficult to get along with may come with monetary benefits, but people who are agreeable by nature tend to have stronger friendships, are liked more by their peers and are more satisfied with life in general. Finishing last, or close to it, may not be so bad after all.