FAIRBANKS — Adam Baker was a nice guy. People at his company flocked to him because he put them at ease.
He had worked hard to build a new line of business for his company — buying a chain of five urban hotels. Baker had spotted the opportunity, convinced his boss that this was a money-making deal, and even rounded up other investors, including someone serving with Adam on the board of directors at his business school.
He wanted to run the new enterprise.
But his boss called — Adam was not the right guy to lead this venture.
“I love hotels,” Adam said. “I’m ready to lead. I can do this.”
“The hotel business is brutal,” his boss replied.
“And I’m not brutal?”
“Thankfully, no, you are not. That’s why the door is closed. I’m sorry.”
This Harvard Business School case, used to teach business school students how to deal with difficult situations, is based on the common saying, “Nice guys finish last.”
Nice people, those who care about others and are kind and generous, supposedly don’t have the aggressiveness to take themselves or their companies to the top.
Is this saying true? Ironically, the person who supposedly coined the saying, baseball manager Leo Durocher, insists he was misquoted.
But the saying “Nice guys come in last” stuck because so many people think it is true. Assertiveness, competitiveness, drive and dominance, they believe, count for a lot more in the business world than “niceness.”
Psychologists equate “niceness” with “agreeableness,” a stable personality trait that has strong genetic roots, like extroversion, conscientiousness and neuroticism.
Agreeable people, researchers find, place greater value on interpersonal relationships, spend more energy maintaining these relationships, are more cooperative and helpful, and are better liked.
But such agreeable people don’t reach the top, at least when measured by income levels, finds psychologist Timothy Judge at the University of Notre Dame and his colleagues (“Do Nice Guys — and Gals — Really Finish Last?” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).
Using a large real-world sample of 1,692 people and taking into account the kinds of jobs they had, Judge found that men who scored very low in agreeableness made $19,241 more than than who scored very high in agreeableness.
Women who scored very low in agreeableness made $3,242 more than women who scored very high.
Why do agreeable people make less money? They place more value on good relationships compared to high pay, Judge found. Agreeable men also take a big hit because men are expected to be assertive, Judge speculates.
Agreeable people don’t come in last in every type of business. Hotel managers, for example, were more apt to hire agreeable people as servers in their restaurants, another study found.
“Hire the smile, train the skill,” is the way Nordstrom Inc. puts it, when hiring sales people.
But people in these businesses have a lot of customer contact where people skills count.
Importantly, being agreeable does lead to other types of success.
Agreeable people, Judge found:
• were more satisfied with their lives.
• suffered less stress.
• were more involved with their communities.
• had a lot more friends.
“If disagreeable men win the earnings war, it is a victory that may come at some cost,” Judge points out.
“You can be successful in the workplace and stay nice,” writes Ronald Riggio, professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College.
But you need to recognize that people do take advantage of nice people.
Be true to yourself, go ahead and be nice. Sometimes you can kill people with kindness and wear them down.
Know that sometimes you have to “fight back, and be willing to walk away permanently.”
Nice guys do indeed come in behind, at least in income. But they come ahead in friends and satisfaction with their lives.
The not-so-nice people get more cash, the nice people get more happiness.
Judith Kleinfeld, a longtime columnist for the Daily News-Miner, holds a doctorate from Harvard and is a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.