Do Nicer People Earn Less Money? Of Course They Do. And That’s the Way it Should be.

Leo Durocher figured out that "nice guys finish last" 60 years ago, and he never went to college. Now three academics, after extensive research, have "discovered" the same thing. Ah, scholarship!

A study by Cornell professor Beth A. Livingston,  Timothy A. Judge of the University of Notre Dame and Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario study used survey data to examine “agreeableness” and found that disagreeable men made 18%, or $9,772 annually, more in salary than those who are more accommodating. The salary disparity was  less among women, with disagreeable females making 5% or $1,828, more than those who are easier to get along with. Does this shock you? It shouldn’t.

As is depressingly often the case, the academics who come up with such crack-brain studies—I read this one, and will want that wasted hour back when I’m on my death-bed so I can watch one last re-run of “Magnum, P.I.”—have so little experience with the working world and the reality of non-academic cultures that they don’t even comprehend their own research and draw absurd conclusions from it.

“The problem is, many managers often don’t realize they reward disagreeableness,” Livingston told the Wall Street Journal. “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.”

Oh brother.

Dear Researchers:

I hate to break it to you, but leaders are disagreeable. That’s what makes them leaders. They are ambitious, contrary, contentious, often lonely, usually self-centered, independent, risk-taking, competitive, and confident. Followers are agreeable. Leaders, the effective ones, cause others to agree with them.

In addition, the qualities your study seemed to value, like kindness and consideration, while not antithetical to leadership, can’t be too big a part of it, either. A manager who values kindness over performance will stick with a mediocre employee when better ones are available. A gentle, scrupulously fair executive is likely to value loyalty and longevity, sometimes to the detriment of the company. Being nice is still a virtue, but being overly nice is a handicap in management of any kind.

One of the most effective, successful and disagreeable of all baseball managers was Earl Weaver, who took the Baltimore Orioles to many pennants and championships. He retired, he said, when he could no longer take the emotional stress of having to tell a player that the team was cutting him, that his career was over. At that point, Weaver knew, he had become agreeable, in a job in which a certain level of callousness was required.

An agreeable lawyer, as Ken pointed out so vividly at Popehat last week, is going to be a lousy lawyer, and unable to do the best job for his or her client. An agreeable military officer is going to get someone killed. An overly agreeable employee is going to be a joy to work with, but when managing conflict is required, or doing battle with aggressive, motivated, determined, disagreeable individuals with their own ideas of what should be done, the agreeable employee is handicapped.

The top job in this country, the Presidency, is almost always occupied by an essentially disagreeable individual, though many disguise that fact with a thick overlay of charm and guile. Many have been borderline sociopaths, and some not so borderline at that. You didn’t dare cross Bill Clinton (or Hillary!), or Ronald Reagan, or F.D.R., J.F.K., and Nixon. Andrew Jackson was likely to shoot you; James K. Polk would cut you off at the knees. Now, President Grant was a nice guy. Rutherford B. Hayes was a nice guy. Taft and Harding were oh so agreeable. So was Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush. Lousy Presidents all.

On balance, disagreeable employees will get promoted more frequently than agreeable employees, unless they are so disagreeable that nobody can work with them. It has always been thus. Scholars Livingston, Judge and Hurst think this is a revelation? Here is one more reason to question the costs of higher education.

There is another obvious reason why the more disagreeable people will make more money. They value money over ethics; in a choice between the successful and profitable thing and the kind and fair thing, they’ll always choose the money. People who care about money, on balance, make more of it than those who don’t. People who want power and value it over treating others with compassion will be more powerful, as a group.  Surprise!

But wait! Isn’t this an argument against ethics, if those who don’t give as high a priority to ethical values like caring, fairness and respect are more successful that others? Not at all. This is why professional ethics are distinct from ethics generally. In the workplace, values must be realigned according to the objectives of the organization and the stakeholders who trust and depend on it. It may be kind not to report that a colleague  in the accounting department has revealed to you that he has a gambling addiction and begged you to keep his secret, because he has a sick wife and two kids in college, and seemingly cruel and disagreeable to go to management and tell them that they have a ticking time-bomb with check-writing power.  But in an organization, this is mandatory conduct, the kind of tough professional ethics call that excessively nice people often get wrong.

The challenge to all of us is to achieve a balance between the ethical values of responsibility on one side and caring on the other, which in a professional and leadership setting is difficult; indeed, it is perhaps the most difficult task of all. Wanting to be agreeable and liked is often the cause of failures of duty that create far more pain and misfortune than the conduct that seemed too disagreeable to contemplate.

Being nice is a virtue in a human being, It is not necessarily a virtue in a leader.

9 thoughts on “Do Nicer People Earn Less Money? Of Course They Do. And That’s the Way it Should be.

  1. Plus, being nice, we don’t complain about inequities in pay and opportunity. Just let it slide. I need to get more cranky.

  2. Other news headlines of this variety “Sociologists find that Physicists better at mathematics that English teachers”, “Sports Scientists find that pianists more coordinated than accountants”, “Psychologists find that women viewed as “attractive” more likely to be hired as a model” and “Ten year, $50 million study by economists finds that physicians make more money than college professors, despite similar levels of academic training”.

    Why do they bother with such studies? I wonder if the real point, as you suggested, is that they are trying to push an agenda. Business rewards mean people, therefore business is bad. If you really want to push an agenda, do a study that shows that managers that steal from the company, managers that destroy a companies productivity, and managers that reduce the profit of the company make more money.

    • For every 10 studies that say what people expect, there’s 1 that turns conventional wisdom on its head.* Without actually studying something rigorously, it’s just a wives’ tale, possibly a likely wives’ tale, but still a wives’ tale.

      *All figures in this post are wives’ tales.

  3. Leaders don’t have to be disagreeable; in fact it’s much better if they’re not.. They have to make people want to follow them. Of course they have to have strong convictions and hold to them. They have to correct (sometimes fire) people who don’t buy in to their convictions, but a major part of leadership is buoying up your followers. Not snarling at them.

    • If you look at the study definition of agreeableness, it is not meanness, it means they “aggressively advocate for their position during conflicts”. Agreeable traits are altruism, compliance, modesty, tender-mindedness, straightforwardness, and trust. You can see where altruism, compliance, modesty, and tender-mindeddness don’t get you into high leadership positions often. Again, this definition of ‘agreeable’ and ‘disagreeable’ is completely arbitrary and more than a little bit misleading. Perhaps the authors and developers of the concept of ‘agreeableness’ didn’t score very highly on the ‘trust’ and ‘straightforwardness’ parts themselves.

    • I didn’t read the study as an endorsement of snarling, did you? But nobody ever called Patton “agreeable.” Or Eisenhower. Or Obama, according to what I hear. The trick is to disagree agreeably. Or not.

  4. The study is using “disagreeable” in an unusually literal way, as in “unlikely to agree.” That didn’t stop the headline writers from advertising the study in a misleading fashion. I used “nice” because most people equate nice with altruism, compliance, modesty, tender-mindedness, etc…that’s really what the study was after.

  5. I’m agreeable to Michael, if he is saying that leaders“aggressively advocate for their position during conflicts”

    I don’t know Obama, but I knew Clinton and Gore: they were tough, but quite charming–even loving–to the people around them, who in turn were willing to “march into Hell” for them.

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