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March 2012
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Get Along or Get Ahead? The Gendered Implications of Being Nice

Posted by: Alex Linley

 

Women are in a “no win” situation. If they are agreeable (as women are stereotypically expected to be), they are less likely to speak up for themselves, and more likely to risk being exploited and taken advantage of by others. If they are disagreeable, they are viewed more negatively by their peers – because they are violating the gender norms that (whether we like it or not) exist for women, but that exist in reverse for men (who are more expected to be disagreeable).

 

These are the politically inconvenient facts as demonstrated by Tim Judge and colleagues in a recent paper that examined the impact of sex and agreeableness on income. If you’re nice (i.e., agreeable), you earn less, whether you’re male or female. If you’re nice and you’re female, ouch, you earn less than anyone.

 

The six facets of agreeableness – trust, straightforwardness, altruism, modesty, compliance and tender-mindedness – give a good idea of what this personality trait is about. If you’re high in agreeableness, you’re a stereotypical “nice person”. If you’re low in agreeableness, you’re not. You might think that less agreeable people are the “jerks” (the most polite alternative I could find to the usual word) of organisational folklore, but in fact this doesn’t have to be the case.

 

In reality, less agreeable people who are more successful, simply tend to be less agreeable at certain times and in certain situations. For example, they are much more prepared to make the case for themselves when they need to (such as in pay negotiations), as opposed to going along with others and accepting the status quo in order to keep relationships harmonious.

 

The net difference: less agreeable people (or at least people prepared to be less agreeable in pay negotiations) are more likely to negotiate higher salaries and so have higher incomes. And on balance, they are more likely to be men.

 

As a result, we might conclude that if you want to be less agreeable (at least in certain circumstances), you should choose actively to:

  1. Stand up for yourself and your own interests (rather than accepting the status quo or avoiding anything that could upset others or cause conflict).
  2. Value individual achievement (at least slightly more than you value time with family and friends).
  3. Make decisions that are based on your own competitive individual success (rather than maintaining harmony and pleasing the people around you). 

Easy, right? Change your behaviour in this way and the world is your oyster.

 

Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as this. How people evaluate you is based as much on the other person’s gender expectations, as it is on your own behaviour. This led Judge and colleagues to conclude: “Closing the gender gap seems to hinge less on changing women’s behavior than it does on changing the minds of decision makers” (p. 405).

 

With such a complex web of factors at play, the only sure thing is that there are no easy answers or simple prescriptions for what to do.

 

Nonetheless, here are my recommendations for how you can both get along and get ahead:

  1. If in doubt, be nice. Being nice builds favour power – and you then just need to remember when to call those favours in.
  2. Be prepared to be less nice – and even not nice – when you need to be, and when you judge it’s appropriate.
  3. Be clear about what you want and why you want it. Agreeable people are more likely to value relationships over success, and there is nothing wrong with this – as long as you recognise that this means you’re likely to earn less, and you accept the consequences.
  4. Be prepared to stand up for yourself and be unpopular on the occasions, and in the situations, that warrant it. People will respect you more – as long as you get the balance right and choose your situations wisely.

So, while it certainly isn’t easy, there are strategies you can adopt to ensure that, nice or less nice, male or female, you can both get along and get ahead.

 

Reference:

Judge, T. A., Livingston, B. A., & Hurst, C. (2012). Do nice guys – and gals – really finish last? The joint effects of sex and agreeableness on income. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 390-407.

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