“The other night I ate at a real nice family restaurant. Every table had an argument going.”

George Carlin

It seems that that nasty people (particularly when they are bosses) seem to make the lives of other’s miserable even if they have more status, make more money and have more power.

In general, being cooperative, flexible, tolerant, and forgiving towards others (this personality factor is often labeled as agreeableness) is universally related to success across many jobs, spanning across low to high levels of job complexity, training, and experience necessary to qualify for employment ((Sacket, P. & Walmsley, T. (2014). Which personality attributes are most important for the workplace? Perspectives in Psychological Science, 9, 538-551)).

Given the increasing reliance of organizations on teams, cooperation and collaboration with others, it would seem that people high in agreeableness would have at least a slight economic advantage over those low in agreeableness.   Those who are low in agreeableness might actually create a psychological climate where talent are most likely to be disengaged, stresses and less committed to stay with  the organization ((Nowack, K. (2006). Emotional intelligence: Leaders Make a Difference. HR Trends, 17, 40-42)).

Killer Bosses

A prospective study of 506 males and 3,570 females measured “perceived justice” (supervisory practices) and absenteeism due to illness and self-reported health ((Elovainio, M. et al., 2002. Organizational Justice: Evidence of a New Psychosocial Predictor of Health American Journal of Public Health, 92, 105-108)). The rates of absence due to sickness among those perceiving low justice were 1.2 to 1.9 times higher than among those perceiving high justice. These associations remained significant even after statistical adjustment for behavioral risks, workload, job control, and social support.

Researchers Wagner, Feldman, and Hussy (2003) demonstrated how working for jerks can directly cause a significant increase in blood pressure and how these leaders can be a potent workplace stressor which has a clinically significant impact on cardiovascular functioning ((Wagner, N., Feldman, G. & Hussy, T. (2003). The effect of ambulatory blood pressure of working under favourably and unfavourably perceived supervisors. Occupational Environmental Medicine, 60, 468-474)).  Their field study of female healthcare assistants explored blood pressure as it related to perceptions of supervisor interaction style. Ambulatory blood pressure was measured every 30 minutes over a 12-hour period for three days. Statistically significant SBP differences were observed for those working for supervisors perceived to be less favorable.

In one of the most startling studies, 6,442 male British civil servants were asked to rate supervisory practices (perceived justice at work) and were followed for cardiovascular events. Those employees who perceived their supervisors treated them fairly had 30% lower CHD incidents after adjustment for other known coronary risk factors ((Kivimaki, M. et al., 2005. Justice at Work and Reduced Risk of Coronary Heart Disease Among Employees: The Whitehall Study. Archives of Internal Medicine, 165, 2245-2251)). 

Do Nice Guys(Gals) Actually Finish Last?

“Niceness”—in the form of the trait of agreeableness—does not alway appear to pay. Agreeable individuals place greater value on their interpersonal relationships, are more motivated to maintain these relationships, are more prosocial, are more cooperative and helpful, and, as a result, are better liked by their peers.

They just don’t appear to be financially successful.

Timothy Judge and colleagues at the University of Notre Dame, conducted a series of 4 studies examining income as a function of agreeableness and gender ((Judge, et al., (2012). Do Nice Guys – and Gals – Really Finish Last? The Joint Effects of Sex and Agreeableness on Income. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10, 390-407)).  Agreeableness is one of the “Big Five” trait variables that researchers commonly use to classify and describe human personality.  The other trait factors are openness to experience, extraversion, neuroticism, and conscientiousness.  Agreeable individuals describe themselves as cooperative, non-argumentative, trusting and trustworthy.

The first study found that agreeableness (e.g., trust, compliance, altruism) was related to income, such that less agreeable individuals earned more than their agreeable counterparts for both men and women. 

In the final study, participants were asked to act as though they were a human resources manager for a company. Eight candidates for an entry-level consultant position were described, and study participants had to determine which ones should be placed on the fast-track to management. Results indicated that agreeable candidates were less likely to be recommended to advance to management. Women were also less likely to be recommended to advance.

In general, agreeable individuals tend to be more relationship focused, more helpful and altruistic, and less likely to be angry and aggressive.  They’re also better liked by their peers.

At least these findings provide support for the old saying that “nice guys finish last” if you prefer to use a metric of financial success.  Nice people appear “rich” in other ways but in terms of making money, a little bit of being nasty appears to have some advantages….Be well…

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development, Relate

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