At Work, Why Meanness Pays Off

A new study finds male workers deemed "agreeable" earn much less money than their tougher counterparts. There's a less pronounced pay difference for women. Study co-author Beth Livingston of Cornell University says managers do not realize that they're rewarding more hostile behavior. To explore the study and its ramifications, guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with Professor Livingston and Tell Me More's regular finance expert Alvin Hall.

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JACKI LYDEN, host: Now, it's time for our Money Counts conversation. That's when we talk about matters of personal finance and the economy and when it comes to personal earning power, you might think that being a good team player with a positive attitude could only help. A new study, though, suggests that it doesn't.

University researchers from Cornell, Notre Dame and Western Ontario have found that men considered agreeable earned roughly 18 percent less than men considered disagreeable. That's almost a $10,000 difference per year. There's also a difference between women, but it's not as pronounced.

To tell us more, we have study coauthor, Beth Livingston, with us. She's an assistant professor of human resources studies at Cornell University. We also have our regular money coach, Alvin Hall. And welcome to you both.

ALVIN HALL: Thank you.

BETH LIVINGSTON: Hi. Thank you.

LYDEN: Professor Livingston, the study's called, "Do Nice Guys and Gals Really Finish Last? The Joint Effects of Sex and Agreeableness on Income." That's what it's called.

Well, how do you define agreeableness?

LIVINGSTON: Agreeableness is a complex personality trait and it really encompasses people who are kinder, more trusting, more cooperative. And those who are more disagreeable tend to be more competitive, arrogant, manipulative and they tend to value their relationships less than those who are agreeable.

LYDEN: So it sounds as if that would be a bad thing in the workplace, but no.

LIVINGSTON: It's interesting. From an individual perspective, we found that people who perceive themselves to be more disagreeable do tend to make more money than those people who perceive themselves as more agreeable. Yes.

LYDEN: Now, you collected data from 10,000 workers from all around the nation, all ages. They had different jobs and pay rates. Would you please summarize what you found?

LIVINGSTON: Absolutely. So there's actually four smaller studies within the larger paper, and the three first studies in that collaboration are from three separate samples, and they're large, nationally representative samples.

One encompasses people who graduated high school in the late '90s. One of people who graduated high school in the late '50s and one that's a range of ages and geographical locations across the United States. And we found the same exact pattern in all three separate, publicly available samples and data sets, and then we were able to corroborate that in an individual experiment that we ran with current college students.

LYDEN: Alvin, what'd you make of these findings? I hear you've seen some same trends happening in the workplace and you're calling it tough capitalism. What do you mean by that?

HALL: Yes. I think that, in capitalism, there's the idea that the competitive, harsh, blunt person wins. They're the ones who can close the deal and they can be uncompromising. And I've seen this develop quite substantially, I would say, over the past 20 years since I've been working on Wall Street.

In the early days, you would see people try to build consensus, but now, you find that people say, it's either my way or no way. This is the deal I want. Take it or leave it. And they walk away from the table.

LYDEN: And Professor Livingston, you've noted that managers are rewarding this kind of attitude almost without even noticing it. In what ways?

LIVINGSTON: The final study that we did was fascinating, in that we used college students who tend to be more egalitarian at this time in their lives, than, kind of, older workers. And we found that, as long as we described a worker as being less trusting and more arrogant, they tended to say those people needed to be the managers and the other people didn't, and it was fascinating.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about new research called "Do Nice Guys and Gals Really Finish Last? The Joint Effects of Sex and Agreeableness on Income."

I'm Jacki Lyden and we're speaking with study coauthor, Professor Beth Livingston, and our regular money coach, Alvin Hall.

Alvin, what have you seen as the downside to this kind of aggressive attitude in the workplace, particularly in your industry - financial services?

HALL: It creates a situation in which people live in a state of fear. I think some of the personalities that are disagreeable and who are rewarded financially for it take those traits to indicate success.

We've actually seen this developing in things like the movies. In 1980, there was a movie, "Nine to Five," in which Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda all worked to get this mean boss and to keep him away, and made that company much more humanist and much more understanding.

Fast forward seven years. You have "Wall Street" and Gordon Gekko. Win at all costs, greed is good, and we've seen that movie come out in a second edition and we've seen more of those personalities being touted and praised in media.

LYDEN: Does it work?

HALL: I would say, on Wall Street, where everything is about the bottom line, it works for a while, because people are viewed as expendable or replaceable. You find that, in these situations where people are bullying, they don't really treasure human capital. They treasure the greenback.

LYDEN: Professor Livingston, when you looked at men who behaved like this, they had an 18 percent pay difference. For women, it was just five percent more if they were aggressive. What do you think this means for women in the workplace?

LIVINGSTON: I find that to be the most surprising and the most fascinating of our findings, because for years, we've heard of all the things that women need to do in order to bring their earnings up to be on par with men. Right? I mean, you can go into any self-help section of any book store and see thousands of books that tell women how they need to act more like men or less like men, or whatever, to bring their earnings up.

And what we found here is really, a really negligible difference between earnings of women who were more or less agreeable, that the mean girls didn't tend to trump the nice girls and the nice girls didn't tend to get ahead. They really tended to be more hampered by the fact they were women than by anything else.

LYDEN: Before we let you each go, should anything be done to change this culture of nice guys and gals finishing last? Professor Livingston?

LIVINGSTON: I think that it's worth considering. One of the, kind of, buried paragraphs in our article talks about the fact that agreeable people tend to be more satisfied with their lives and have a higher quality of their relationships. And I think that, in our society, sometimes we think about money trumping all, especially in this time of, really, economic crisis.

But there are also benefits to being agreeable, and we need to not forget that and we need to think about organizations in which you really want to build that cooperative culture and you want to build a long term outcome instead of a short term affect. And I think that's definitely something that managers at least need to be aware of as they move forward in their selection decisions.

LYDEN: Alvin, what's your take?

HALL: I think that all of the managers who are involved in this area, should really sit down and study Aristotle's Golden Mean, which looks to extremes, and realize that the compromise isn't always perfectly in the middle. It may lean more to one side or a little bit of the other.

I think if they were well versed in that, they would understand that compromise and being human doesn't indicate weakness. It could indicate that people are happy with their lives and they are able to inspire others.

LYDEN: And therefore, are better workers and employees?

HALL: Are better workers and employees. Absolutely.

LYDEN: Alvin Hall is our regular finance expert and he joined us from our bureau in New York. Beth Livingston is the coauthor of the new study called "Do Nice Guys and Gals Really Finish Last?" And she's an assistant professor of human resources studies at Cornell University, where she joined us from the campus studio.

Well, thank you both for starting the Labor Day week for us.

HALL: You're welcome.

LIVINGSTON: Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: If you want to read the study in its entirety, we'll have a link to it on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on Programs, and then on TELL ME MORE.

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LYDEN: Just ahead, nearly half of the women who go to war are mothers who face all kinds of obstacles, on the battlefield, and often when they return home, too.

FEMALE ONE: The civilian world has a much harder time coping with mothers at war than the military does.

LYDEN: The impact of war on military mothers. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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