They live among us, indistinguishable from those they victimize until they mess up the break room, steal your stapler, or get promoted to management. They are “jerks in the workplace.” If you’re not familiar enough with them to find Dilbert funny, you are a lucky person indeed; you do not know the sting of their venom, the demoralization of their presence, and the uncomfortable suspicion that they get paid more than you on those merits alone.
“Do Nice Guys—and Gals—Really Finish Last?” This is the question asked by a study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which sought to establish a link between somebody’s salary and their agreeableness. This study consisted of a thorough series of surveys given to a wide variety of workers, the end result being that those who rated low on the “agreeableness” scale were found to make more money. This discrepancy was particularly high for men, with less-agreeable men making 18% more annually versus the 5% gap that disagreeable women enjoy. Additionally, a second study was conducted wherein a group of business students were asked to review applicant descriptions for a fictional job placement; “highly agreeable” applicants were more likely to be turned down.
What can we take away from these findings? A glib mind may take it as evidence that jerk-dom leads to financial success. This is an unfortunate attitude to encourage, however; a hostile workplace is a toxic workplace, after all, and many successful companies apparently benefit from a strict “No Jerk Policy.” All the same, there are several things to be mindful of while digesting the results of this study, and it may serve to shine a light on a number of important ideas:
Finding the Right Balance for Professionalism in the Workplace
Identify the Line Between “Jerk” and “Professional”
The study defined “agreeableness” based on the following traits: trust, straightforwardness, altruism, compliance, modesty, and tender-mindedness. This paints a far more agreeable picture of disagreeableness than the study’s title suggests, whereas a disagreeable person is contrasted against the hypothetical “nice guy — or gal.”
With the exception of altruism, these are all traits that a good person may don or discard throughout the various aspects of his life, and the “disagreeable” versions thereof may often equate to those most conducive of personal effectiveness in the workplace. It’s bad to be compliant if you’re complying with a horrible mistake, it’s bad to show trust if somebody doesn’t deserve it, it’s bad to be modest if you bear responsibility, and it’s all-around bad to put “very agreeable” on your resume if it’s going to be read by anybody who is savvy enough to know a “yes man” when he sees one. Ultimately, this study may have very little bearing on “nice” guys (or gals).
Recognize the Difference Between Cause and Effect
We as a society have a terrible habit of observing those who are successful and attempting to imitate them in all the wrong ways. When we see that innovators tend to offend people, we aspire more to offend than to innovate. When we see that famous people tend to be wealthy, we celebrate even the lowest forms of fame that the Internet can provide us. In the same vein, we have to observe that the above study does not do much to establish causation; while it makes sense to imagine that a disagreeable person might be more aggressive in vying for a raise, it’s equally logical to imagine that less-than-courteous behaviour might in fact result from a high-pressure, long-hour, high-paying job.
So perhaps the news really isn’t so bleak; perhaps the outlook really isn’t that bad for your workplace’s nice guys and gals, and perhaps your worst office antagonist is going to be getting his due after all. There is still something to be said for our reception of disagreeable people, particularly in the apparent gendered lines we draw between good disagreeableness and bad disagreeableness. However, with a bit of self-awareness, a company that is simultaneously civil, productive, and fair should be entirely within reach.