No More Mister Nice Guy?

Nice guys earn significantly lower salaries than less agreeable men (though still more than women, regardless of their agreeableness) reports a new study by Timothy A. Judge, Beth A. Livingston, and Charlice Hurst in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Whether you are surprised or unsurprised, dismayed or vindicated, you may be wondering whether this information should lead you to try to change your workplace behavior or persona. Bottom line: if you want to get a raise, should you act like a jerk?

No. Instead, the authors of the study recommend that we adopt a “flexible repertoire of behaviors appropriate to context.” You need not abandon the pro-social behaviors that strengthen relationships and improve job satisfaction. But if you suspect that you may be too “nice” for your own good, you should probably learn to selectively assert yourself, particularly in the areas of salary negotiations, constructive challenge to the status quo, and advocating for yourself. This almost certainly means being less “agreeable” but it does not make you a “meanie.”

Here’s where I have a bone to pick with mainstream coverage of this research. In the WSJ, Rachel Emma Silverman erroneously concludes that the opposite of agreeableness is meanness. But that unnuanced view misses the fact that being “agreeable” involves a collection of qualities. The authors list the following as elements of agreeableness: trust, straightforwardness, compliance, and modesty. But scoring lower than average on these qualities would not necessarily indicate that you are a jerk. In fact, according the the authors, people of lower than average agreeableness are generally amicable, but they occasionally behave in ways that are not agreeable — such as aggressively advocating for their position in a conflict. So you shouldn’t have to choose between being nice and being a boor. You just need to choose your moments to be less modest and compliant.

This advice should help men overcome the perceived deficiency of being “nice.” But what do we tell women, who still face such a huge gender gap in pay? Well, according to the research, asserting themselves might lead to a 5% increase in pay, but still leaves them lagging way behind the men. I really wish I had something more to offer them to close the gender gap, but I don’t.