Everyone says you're the nicest person they know at work. You're considerate, you value relationships and pitch in to be a good team player.
But are you also being a sucker? New research has found that even if nice guys don't always finish last, they're very likely to have a lot less in their pay cheques than those who put their own needs ahead of others.
Men who score on personality tests as highly disagreeable tend to earn more than 18 per cent more – an average of $9,700 more a year – than men who were scored as most agreeable. Agreeableness made less of a difference in women, but it still meant an average 5-per-cent salary gap for nice gals.
"We want to caution people that this doesn't mean that if they go in to work tomorrow and act like a jerk, it's going to be really great for their career and make them more likely to get a raise," said study co-author Charlice Hurst, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey School of Business.
But it does suggest that speaking up for yourself more often may make you more highly valued by your employer, she said. "It comes down to standing up for your interests and being more assertive in your negotiations based on what you know your value to be rather than making people happy your top priority."
The research team looked first at data from four long-term research studies in the United States about behaviour and job status. They compared the salaries of the most agreeable people – those who valued relationships, altruism and the good of the group above their own self interest – with those who were most self-interested and aggressive.
"Surprisingly, we found similar salary gaps in data sets that go as far back as the 1950s," said Prof. Hurst, who collaborated with Beth Livingston of Cornell University and Timothy Judge of the University of Notre Dame. "And we didn't see much difference in different age groups, races or social classes or complexity of jobs."
To find out why, they ran their own experiment with students in business management classes who were asked to role play as human resource managers for a fictional company. Each was presented with single-paragraph descriptions of eight entry-level candidates for a consultant position. Participants were randomly assigned descriptions of eight female or eight male candidates (to disguise the gender component of the study) and were asked which ones should be placed on a fast track to management.
All the candidates were described as conscientious, smart, and insightful, and all the descriptions ended with notes, such as "Observation: seems to be candid and trusting," or, "Observation: his/her natural competitiveness was apparent."
In assessing the fast-track potential of candidates, the business students were somewhat more likely to favour men over women. But their aversion to agreeableness, particularly among men, was remarkably strong. In the case of women candidates, in fact, it mattered little, if at all, whether they were agreeable or not. But, while male candidates low in agreeableness were considerably more likely than women to get the students' nod for the fast track, the opposite in spades was the case for men who were described as highly agreeable.
"One of the reasons we think this could be is stereotypes of expectations that people men of men and women," Prof. Hurst said. Men are expected to be competitive and value their career advancement over their personal lives. "And this finding shows they get heavily penalized and viewed more negatively for not meeting expectations of their gender."
Invariably, women who are more aggressive tend to be evaluated more negatively where men who are aggressive are evaluated positively and men who were agreeable got a lot lower evaluation. "This bolsters the argument that some of this is based on gender stereotypes," Prof. Hurst said of the findings that have been accepted for publication in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and will be presented at the Academy of Management meeting next week.
"We shouldn't take this literally, but it appears the ability to stand up for yourself and advocate for your interests does get you noticed for promotion in an organization," she said.
At the same time, "At a gut level we all know it doesn't get you ahead to be selfish and advocate only for yourself all the time," she added. "We do not want to say unconditionally that people who behave in a more dominant way are evaluated by management as worth more pay."
There are previous findings in the work research literature that suggests men who behave in a more dominant fashion are perceived to be more competent, she noted. But there are probably many other factors behind why highly agreeable people don't earn more. Prof. Hurst said. "For instance, those value their relationships might be less like than those who value career advancement or to move to another job or other city where there are more opportunities to make a higher salary."
"Or it could be that the higher earners are nice guys on a daily basis, but know how to negotiate more aggressively when it comes time to advocate for a better salary," she said.
The message is: "You have to know when it pays to be disagreeable. Obviously it is not going to work if you do it across the board. But they need to know how to stick up for themselves and know how to say what needs to be said."
Editor's note: The name of the Academy of Management has been corrected in the online version of this story.