In 2011, 480 business management undergrads at Notre Dame participated in a study in which they were to play the role of HR managers. They were assigned randomly to examine either eight male or eight female entry-level candidate descriptions and determine which of the eight should be placed on the fast track to management.

Here is an example of a candidate description excerpted from the study:

Carl Q: Was well organized. Nonverbal behaviors were appropriate. Demonstrated great intelligence via college transcripts. Has good insights on topics. Observation: He seems to be candid and trusting.

For all eight sample candidate profiles, the employee descriptions were kept relatively consistent. Each candidate was “described, in some way, as conscientious, smart and insightful.”

The only part of the candidate description that changed significantly was the sentence after the word “observation.” In four of the eight cases, the candidate was described using adjectives that would make the candidate seem agreeable (e.g. trusting, straightforward, modest, compliant, etc.). In the other four cases, the candidates were described as disagreeable, using adjectives that were antonymous.

So which candidates got put on the fast track to management?

No cliche survives without some truth, and “nice guys finish last” is no exception. The United States in particular has competitiveness and aggressiveness build into its very DNA. And not to bolster a stereotype, but it has been proven that this phenomenon affects men and women differently (see A. H. Eagly, 1987). As far as final results go, the spread is bigger between nice guys and not-nice guys than there is for nice / not-nice gals.

The two places that men seem to complain about most frequently are in the workplace, and in dating life. Nice guys often complain that they get passed over for promotions, earn less money, and receive less interest from women than other men do.

Timothy A. Judge of Notre Dame and Beth A. Livingston of Cornell decided to study the personality trait of “agreeableness” (as defined among the Big 5 personality traits recognized by psychologists) and its effect on income. Their results were published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Their article discusses four separate studies that their team conducted. The HR recommendation study mentioned above was the fourth study in the article.

In all four studies, Judge and Livingston found that disagreeable men were significantly more likely to earn higher pay than agreeable men. Some of the studies controlled for relative job status (“It does not appear that disagreeable individuals earn more because they occupy more complex or high-status jobs.”), and other Big 5 traits (e.g. extroversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness to experience). Analysis revealed a much more slight trend for disagreeable women over agreeable women, but it was not statistically significant. In all cases, men earned more than women.

On the positive side for agreeable individuals, “agreeableness” seems to be positively correlated with life satisfaction, community involvement, friendship networks, and significantly negatively correlated with stress. Nevertheless, the study seems to conclude that, in the authors’ words, “For men, it literally pays to be contrarian.” Disagreeable traits like aggressiveness, inscrutability, and stubbornness are often taken to indicate competence in the minds of employers. That relationship between disagreeableness and the perception of competence is backed up by previous research, as this study notes:

Amabile and Glazebrook (1982) found that people who are highly critical of others were rated as more competent than those offering favorable evaluations. Furthermore, in an experimental study, Tiedens (2001) found that people recommended a higher-status position and higher pay for job applicants who expressed anger – a display more likely among disagreeable people (Jensen-Campbell, Knack, Waldrip, & Campbell, 2007; Meier & Robinson, 2004). […] Thus, while agreeable people might be well-liked, their warmth may undermine perceptions of their competence relative to their disagreeable peers who may, in fact, be no better equipped for the job.

Why is the agreeableness-income relationship so much more pronounced for men than for women? The authors note that this is a matter for further study, but they have a hypothesis: disagreeableness is a stereotypically acceptable male trait. The moment that women try to engage in competitive “masculine” behavior, they are subject to backlash for violating gender norms. Women, they hypothesize, are in a no-win scenario: be agreeable and thereby withdraw from the competition for higher positions and salary, or be disagreeable and invite derision for not behaving in a feminine way.

Iz a Nice GuySo what is one to do with this information, particularly if you’re a man? The authors concede that, “The easiest…interpretation of our results is that persistent rudeness increases men’s salaries.” Is that all there is to it? Does this really prove that you have to be a bad guy to get anywhere?

The truth, of course, is not that simple. Not even the authors of the study believe that rudeness is a formula for money. The full quotation that I truncated above actually reads,

The easiest and, we think, the most unlikely interpretation of our results is that persistent rudeness increases men’s salaries. Some may wish that the path to career success was so fomulaic; however, as noted earlier, disagreeable people behave disagreeably only slightly more often than agreeable people (Fleeson & Gallagher, 2009). And, since agreeableness is a multi-faceted construct, it is not clear that being rude is the mechanism by which low levels of the trait effect higher income. One might predict stronger effects for assertiveness (Costa, Terracciano, & McCrae, 2001) than for other facets of agreeableness such as politeness (DeYoung, Quilty & Peterson, 2007). Also…disagreeable people may value money more highly and, thus, make higher investments in intrinsic success.

Amen. The point of contention I have with this study (and its a point that the authors concede is in need of further research) is the “multi-faceted” (I would say “vague”) nature of the construct of agreeableness. It’s like the word “nice.” We tend to hear that, “Nice guys can’t get promoted,” or, “Nice guys can’t find dates.” But it depends on how you define the word “nice.” Or in this case, how you define the word “agreeable.” If you mean respectful, socially adept, trustworthy, and assertive, then yes, lots of nice guys have dates. If you mean weak-willed, pliant, capitulating, and afraid of conflict, then it’s not hard to understand why such a man would tend to earn less.

Agreeableness as a construct for study comes from a psychological assessment tool called the NEO Personality Inventory, which was created in 1992 to assess individuals in terms of the Big 5 personality traits. The facets that comprise agreeableness in the NEO inventory are trust (in others), straightforwardness, altruism, compliance, modesty, and tender-mindedness.

According to research built on this construct, agreeable individuals:

  • Place greater value on their interpersonal relationships
  • Are more motivated to maintain those relationships
  • Are more prosocial
  • Are more cooperative and helpful, and thus,
  • Are better liked by their peers

In choosing agreeableness as the attribute to study, the authors are on relatively safe scientific ground. The Big 5 personality traits are an established and respected construct for evaluating adult personalities relative to one another. However, these distinctions were meant to classify the human personality into broad buckets relative to one another, and not to define exhaustively characteristics that exist in a vacuum. One runs into trouble when one tries to talk about one of the Big 5 traits in isolation from the other four.

For example, “assertiveness” is a trait that is often mentioned when discussing whether someone is a Nice Guy. When we think of the Nice Guys who finish last, they typically lack assertiveness. But assertiveness, or its opposite, passiveness, is not mentioned in the Big 5 trait description for agreeableness. Why? Because assertiveness is one of the sub-traits of another Big 5 personality trait: extroversion. It had to go somewhere, and in context with all five traits, that is the best place for it. But out of context, it is needlessly left out of the discussion.

PersonalityThe authors suggest that a good next step would be to study the agreeableness facets in isolation, to see which are most correlated with the agreeableness-income negative relationship. I agree that a good next step would be to get more specific with the research in this area. The agreeableness facets from the NEO inventory may or may not be the best way to study this phenomenon. In my mind, when we talk about agreeableness, we have to separate the traits that are capitulating behaviors from others that are merely socially functional behaviors.

While researching previous examinations of interpersonal status transactions, I have found mention of the concept of the “personal boundary.” This is not a sociological term, merely a way to reference someone’s ability to either say “no,” or hear “no.” It’s a component of adult maturity. Those who have healthier personal boundaries tend to be less affected by unwanted external influences. They typically have a solid internal locus of control. They tend to have healthier, more functional relationships. And, they are generally regarded as high-status people, because they are selective and discerning about what they bring into their lives.

The thing is, people whom this study labels as “disagreeable” or “rude” may just have strong, healthy personal boundaries. The labeling is blurring the distinction.

Agreeableness negatively correlates with income in my mind only because several low-status traits are lumped into the “agreeableness” construct, traits like compliance, for example. I would hypothesize that compliance, in isolation, correlates highly negatively with income. Many people described as compliant are described that way because they seek to lower their own status in exchange for approval. Other traits, however, like straightforwardness, are classically high-status traits, and are positively associated with Emotional Intelligence. My assumption in mentioning status in this context is that employers associate high-status behaviors, and not disagreeableness, with competence. In other words, men do not earn more when they are anti-social; they earn more when their assertiveness is taken for competence. But because this study lumps both paradigms into the “disagreeable” camp, we can’t know for sure.

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  • Discover how to set up your business to use setback and stressors as fuel for growth.
  • Build an unstoppable business that uses resistance to grow like muscle!