You don’t have to be ‘the boss’ to take on a leadership role.

I learned that quite quickly while working with my startup—in many instances,Nice Guys Finish Last if you have the most experience within a certain skill, you’ll have to become the ‘leader’ during some key moments and guide the rest of the team.

What I happen to find fascinating is that numerous psychology studies tend to make a connection between this ability to lead when necessary and the achievement of professional success—especially for men.

The connection lead me to a question that guys have been asking themselves forever:

Do nice guys really finish last in life?

It’s hard to say for sure, but a new study shows that ‘nice guys’ typically earn less than their more aggressive peers.

Fortunately, the research doesn’t suggest that you need to be a jerk to get ahead in life, but that highly agreeable men need to be careful about how assertive they are when it comes their work. This assertiveness, as you’ll see, relates more closely to taking on the role of ‘leader’ than you might think.

Let’s take a look at why this phenomenon happens and what ‘nice guys’ can do about it.

The Problem with Nice Guys

According to a recent study by the University of Notre Dame, nice guys, at least statistically speaking, are not as likely earn the big bucks as their less agreeable peers.

The ladies are probably wondering, “What about us?”, but the study notes that this variable trait of ‘agreeableness’ only seems to detrimentally affect men:

The study shows a strong negative relationship between agreeableness and earnings for men. The more agreeable a man is, the less he will earn. For women, there is essentially no relationship at all.

Why?

Outside of the workplace, ‘Agreeableness’, one of the big 5 personality traits, is generally associated with positive characteristics, such as being warm, sympathetic, kind and cooperative.

It’s also the most commonly cited trait (of the big 5) when people describe an ideal person to spend time with, and most psychological research associates the trait with a slew of other positive behaviors.

So how do men benefit in the workplace by being the opposite?

According to the researchers, this double-standard exists because disagreeable men (at least in competitive, work-related scenarios) are viewed as tough negotiators and willing to stick to their vision, whereas women don’t gain the same benefit in terms of how they are viewed.

It seems that being ‘disagreeable’ isn’t really the ideal behavior, but rather that being too agreeable is viewed as a sign of weakness in men, or as a characteristic of a flaky personality that is lacking in confidence and conviction.

And yet, we’ve seen that being an agreeable person is a highly desirable trait in general, so how can a balance be found? Is there any correlation between assertiveness and other psychological traits that are associated with higher earnings and more work-related success?

I feel the answer lies in analyzing what makes a great leader, as leaders are quite likely to fill up high-earning positions, even if they aren’t ‘the boss.’

Examining leadership qualities also allows us to look past gender discrepancies, as leaders can be men or women and the traits are more universally applicable in the workplace.

So, what makes a great leader?

The Traits of Great Leaders

A lot has been written on being a great leader, but today we’ll take a look at two studies and their findings on what characteristics areNice guys finish last - Marcus Aurelius most important for those who wish to lead others.

The first comes in the form of some academic research on leadership qualities conducted by psychologists Robert Hogan and Robert Kaiser, and the second is a set of data from Jim Collins on what traits are most often associated with a great manager (a position regularly associated with leadership).

By examining the traits that have strong connections with leadership, we can see where ‘nice guys’ may be going wrong, and find out what it really takes to lead others and advance in a competitive environment that isn’t entirely accepting of overly agreeable people.

Let’s dig in…

1.) Decisiveness

The #1 trait across both sources, this characteristic is also the most at odds with being too agreeable.

When we watch others make decisions frequently and stick to those decisions, we subconsciously associate them with responsibility, and thus we are more likely to view them as leaders (especially when other people follow suite).

One study even found that first-movers often have the advantage in many decision making situations, as it only takes a few other people before the majority of the group will view the decision as valid. In essence, the person with the most conviction can create an availability cascade where others will agree with their opinions simply because they are presented so convincingly.

It’s easy to see why being too agreeable can hurt a man’s perceived qualities as a leader, as more agreeable men may look for a consensus to be formed first before they state their opinion, whereas more assertive men are likely to put their opinion forward immediately.

2.) Vision

A natural complement of decisiveness, as we know that a truly great leader does more than just shout his/her opinion the loudest—they back it up with a convincing explanation of how things are going to pan out.

Have you ever spoken with someone who was able to brilliantly articulate their idea to you one-on-one… but fell apart when they had to share it with a group? Sometimes this is the result of a fear of public speaking, and other times the person is just too agreeable to push for their vision in the face of opposing opinions.

In fact, research in the realm of creative thinking (often a fundamental aspect of leadership) has shown that brainstorming is often an ineffective method for coming up with ideas because participants can suffer from evaluation apprehension and social loafing, where they decide to rely on the rest of the group for ideas instead of putting forth their own. Most people are apprehensive about having their thoughts judged by others, which is why this occurrence is so common in group brainstorming sessions.

So skilled creative workers need to realize that what they plan out in their head doesn’t mean a thing unless they are willing to practice being able to present their idea persuasively (and confidently) to their peers and superiors.

3.) Persistence

While being persistent doesn’t necessarily mean being inflexible, there are certainly some differences between the stereotypical ‘agreeable’ personality and a persistent one.

One of the most interesting pieces of research I came across in this area is the denouncement of a tactic that I see many nice guys trying to use—playing devil’s advocate when they want to disagree.

Unfortunately, although being the devil’s advocate allows nice guys to keep pushing for their opinion without hurting any feelings, an insightful study conducted by Charles Namath shows that the tactic generally backfires—using a ‘devil’s advocate argument’ generally strengthens  the group’s opinion on the original argument!

Conversely, true dissent was actually listened to much more closely and evaluated for much longer, as a majority of people will at least seek to understand the opposing argument of someone in the room before they dismiss it (that generally doesn’t happen when dealing with arguments between groups, but that’s for another day!).

Nice guys should therefore not only be persistent in their efforts towards greatness, but they also need to realize that ‘when to hold em’ and when to fold em’ applies to the workplace as well, and if they are confident in their stance/idea/argument, they need to push for it without trying to appeal to everyone.

The Case for Moderation

It should be noted that the other 3 big traits associated with great leaders (there were 6 in all) included things like ModestyCompetence, and Integrity, meaning it’s not always about conviction and confidence on the path to leadership.

That being said, before you close out this post and begin embracing some new Machiavellian lifestyle, you should know that the key trait we’ve thrown around, assertiveness, does have to be used in moderation.

What are the potentially negative impacts of being overly assertive?

Research from Ames & Flynn (2007) sought to find that very answer. They gathered 3 groups of MBA students who were instructed to fill out questionnaires about their peers and the respective managers for whom they’d worked with in the past.

The main observations made examined social outcomes and instrumental outcomes—in other words, how well were the managers liked by the students and how much were they able to accomplish.

The results (as published on PsyBlog) were quite revealing:

  • Productivity: higher and higher levels of assertiveness produced diminishing returns. So in terms of results it’s not much better to be highly assertive than moderately assertive, but it was definitely better to be moderately assertive than not assertive.
  • Social outcomes: higher and higher levels of assertiveness lead to increasingly poor social outcomes. It was definitely better to be moderately assertive than highly assertive.

When you put both of the outcomes together you get an inverted U-shape (below; from Ames & Flynn, 2007). So that people who are low in assertiveness get less things done but people very high in assertiveness are socially insufferable.

Nice guys finish last - Assertiveness

In other words, forceful leadership doesn’t result in a rapid increase in productivity and can make the person in charge socially insufferable, a bad trait for long term leadership.

There seems to be a “sweet spot” where a leader’s presence is felt and their guidance listened to, but without the overbearing presence that tends to be detrimental to others in the group.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

— Lao Tzu

It’s the seamless integration into the group with the clear understanding that one person is taking charge that creates an effective chemistry and allows for a great leader to thrive.

This is one instance where a photo from the web speaks a thousand words:

Nice guys finish last - Leader

Your Turn

Now I want to hear from you…

  1. What did you think of this research?
  2. Have you had a great manager/leader in your professional life? What made you willing to follow them and heed their advice?

I’m interested in hearing that you think, so I’ll see you down in the comments!

CC photo credits: Cayusa, Darrin,  Ames & Flynn

About the Author: Gregory Ciotti is a content marketing manager at Help Scout, the invisible Desk.com alternative built fornice guys finish last - Gregory Ciotti providing exceptional email support for startups and small businesses.

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Written by Gregory Ciotti

Gregory Ciotti is a content marketing manager at Help Scout, the customer support software for businesses who insist on delivering a delightful experience. Get more from Greg on the Help Scout blog.

  • John Gibb

    hi Gregory

    I always enjoy your articles as they’re highly researched and insightful. Congrats! This saying gets redundant overtime, I know… 🙂

    Anyway, a true lead I can say was my first affiliate coach… he taught me everything I know about the business of making money with associate programs. He was a leader because he did what he preached; his actions were genuine, so I believed in his methods right from the bat…

    He was there with me, day and night, guiding me along, not just telling me what to do or what not to do. I felt like he was walking me through the path, up and down, as he was there with me…

    John Gibb
    http://healthywealthyaffiliate.com/

    • Amy Henson

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  • Nice! Extremely thorough. Just stumbled across this via HN, sad to see this didn’t get much discussion on it as it’s a cool topic.

    That said, I actually disagree with relevance of the first study’s research, which seems to be foundational to your argument. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to be referring to employee data, rather than data relevant to executives/founders.

    Successful start-ups (defined by an exit/long-term profitability) are almost by definition outliers, and retroactively picking data points that seem to fit within what’s assumed to be desirable personality traits of its leaders (or even employees) will probably involve some degree of curve-fitting. Maybe not the case for more established professions, but I question such data’s relevance to your argument.

    But, enjoyed the read. Can always count on Buffer’s blog for thorough content, that’s for sure! 🙂

  • Elwin

    As one of the “nice guys” I definitely appreciated the article! My best managers have always been the ones that you barely hear from and give you the freedom to find your own ways to be productive.

  • Craig

    Why is it when they talk about nice guys finishing last, the measuring stick is money?

    • Actually, my point was only that nice guys are susceptible to earning less by being too agreeable, I just used the phrase ‘nice guys finish last’ because it’s a trite debate that everyone loves to argue about. 🙂

  • Beautiful insights.

    There’s a lot to be said for confidence, especially when people are looking for who to follow.

    Confidence, with a lack of competence is easy to sniff out.

    The best leaders I’ve worked with have a great balance of connection + conviction. They maintain connection and rapport (the key to influence), while demonstrating conviction (the rule we use is to operate in an “open and respectful way.”)

    Experience and credentials can often play a bigger role in shaping how a group will perceive your leadership ability. I underestimated this in a few settings, and was surprised by how just revealing a few things quickly put me at the top of the totem pole. (Of course, the experience and credentials need to be relevant to the situation at hand.)

  • Great Article, Thanks for writing that. I believe that nice guys are not really nice, they are just afraid to voice their opinions and they is why they finish last because of fear and if you have fear you wont be first in anything.

    I am a nice guy in many ways but I wont back down from leading or sharing my ideals because that is what being a leader is all about. Even though I am nice, I am never labeled a “nice Guy” Interesting I think people use the label nice because they don’t want to come right out and call them weak.

  • Mardra Sikora

    I have been told I’m “too nice” as an employer. I decided if that goes on my gravestone, “Here lies Mardra, she was too nice.” That’s OK.

    That said, it’s no small surprise that I chose to change professions because managing a business ethically is stressful to the senses.
    And, as a side-note, women still average less income than even a “nice” guy on the payment stick scale, which may be a factor in why it’s not a factor. That’s a whole other discussion, of course.

  • So skilled creative workers need to realize that what they plan out in
    their head doesn’t mean a thing unless they are willing to practice
    being able to present their idea persuasively (and confidently) to their
    peers and superiors.
    http://ntomail.de

  • Vishal .

    This is an exceptionally good article. Sharing it…

  • Roderick Melvin Johnson

    This blog post has left this nice guy here stunned.

    I was just told that I’m “too nice” by my boss during his evaluation review of my performance. And of course a paltry 1% raise in my salary as a possible result of it.

    I now see the wisdom of your words. I guess it’s too late to change my perception at my current employment, but for the next one I’ll definitely keep these words as meditation.

    F&%k you all very much and have a nice day 😉

  • rotosound2001

    I have found that assholes have two thing going for them.fear and admiration….people either submit to them out of fear of consequences for not submitting or they admire and want to be like them and consider it a form of training for future success…for me if they all dropped off into outer space I would sleep better at night.

  • rotosound2001

    The types of “leaders” the article describes are few and far between….most are just garden variety assholes who pushed other assholes out of the way to get where they are.

    • IdRatherBFishin

      This is what I don’t get about these studies. They all assume that the world is some great place where we made it by the skin of our teeth thanks to our terrific leaders. The world is a cesspool with a history of repeated fuckups by everyone at all levels of society, and if we’re here because of some Hail Mary, then like most things it would be the result of individual accomplishments by exceptional individuals that everyone else quickly latches onto the successes of. I think the willingness to villify nice guys is a deep-seated hatred of the world and a last attempt by people who have otherwise discovered they are in no way special or even really beneficial (let’s face it, plenty of guys in suits accomplish nothing with their lives and waste a lot of resources doing it) and so they lash out against what is basically social evolution in an attempt to drag everyone down to their level, not unlike a child who won’t join a game without pre-existing advantages. People have this habit of dismissing everything and reverting when they’re faced with challenges, and that’s an understandable response to some things. Everyone wants to feel relevant, but the reality is that not everyone can or will be, and while there is room for differing opinion, most people’s entire worldviews are encapsulated in a mere subsection of other peoples, a truth they’ll vehemently dismiss. The gap between Nietzsche and the average person is far greater than the gap between a chimpanzee and the average person. I’m a nice guy, and I’ll tell you that I do get a lot of hate just for it, but having real backbone and a real understanding of purpose, I’ve always been able to effectively articulate my position and as a result I can thumb my nose at the exact same people most would look at as “socially aggressive” because they all know I’ve made a fool of them at one time or another. I can also clearly see that I’m the exception for that, and most nice guys really won’t say a bad word even to the people picking on them. What I also see however is that despite my demonstrated competence, I tend to get pushed to the back of the line no matter how vehemently I’m fighting it, not because I’m not standing up for myself but because I make these types of people feel uncomfortable. You can’t really espouse the virtue of selfishness and then extrapolate on it when you’re around someone who can destroy it at the first mention of it. If there’s one piece of advice I have for nice guys it would be this: the world is yours, not theirs. You have souls, they don’t. Consider them as such and do what you will with them, and don’t let them tell you they wouldn’t do the same thing to you, as they’re doing it currently. I don’t think I’m the only person here who’s noticed a correlation between nice and intelligent. If we let goofs run things forever they will continue to get worse, as they have been, and our culture will become even more exploitative, as it has been, while it continues to remove the narrative that even allows you to understand that you’re a victim, as it has been. They want to kill you, make no bones about it. They don’t understand it themselves but that doesn’t mean you should let them. If you run a business and see this attitude in an employee, make them your work-horse. If you’re a teacher and see this attitude in a student, single them out and make them an example. If you’re just an employee at a large firm and find yourself beset upon by overly-competitive people (who will accomplish precisely lots of lip service with all that zeal) frame them, and do it guiltlessly. I can absolutely promise you they would do the same thing to you, and I think most of you know what I’m talking about when I say that these were the people that were always wrong about everything, and whose motives were outwardly profit-oriented. Yet at some point we’re to assume their neurotic behaviour went from being totally erratic to the proper way forward. I think we all know that despite a lot of vocal opponents saying the contrary, we could run this place a million times better than they could. Hell they don’t even know that they’re not running it very well, so how fucking hard is it really to put more effort into this and make something more than the sloppy incoherent mess it is now? Don’t let them tell you they know better, test them and you’ll find out pretty quickly they don’t. If you’re a nice guy, and you aren’t getting anywhere because nice isn’t accepted in your environment, well then be a nice guy while you put the knife in their back. They won’t even see it coming from you. Guys like caseystubbs down there will tell you you’re not voicing your opinions, while you’re voicing your opinions, and then write you off for it, and it’s all done out of self-importance. If it’s actually costing you, just gut him.

  • nickthap

    This is total BS. In most workplaces for most people, you work with you coworkers, not against them.

  • Calvin Colenso

    Sigh… Nice guys… I feel sorry for you…

  • How Very True

    Well with the kind of women that we have out there these days, of course many of us Very Good nice guys will always finish last.

  • I never looked up to managers and leaders who were bossy. They weren’t pushovers, either. When leaders are perceived as being decisive, visionary, and persistent, it doesn’t mean that they are being tough. They are considered trustworthy. To lead a team to high performance, the best leaders interpret social interactions, react appropriately, relate naturally, and communicate effectively. Align4profit.com calls this “Feel. Think. Act. Talk.” This keeps their team motivated to exceed company goals.

  • J.S.

    I’m a nice guy and I always ‘finish last’.

    It’s just the gentlemanly thing to do, when your having sex with a woman.

  • Brady

    The people who agree with this post are ironically weak. haha