The Nice Trap

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Case Incident 1
The Nice Trap?

In these pages we’ve already noted that one downside of agreeableness is that agreeable people tend to have lower levels of career success. Though agreeableness doesn’t appear to be related to job performance, agreeable people do earn less money. Though we’re not sure why this is so, it may be that agreeable individuals are less aggressive in negotiating starting salaries and pay raises for themselves. 

Yet there is clear evidence that agreeableness is something employers value. Several recent books argue in favor of the “power of nice” (Thaler & Koval, 2006) and “the kindness revolution” (Horrell, 2006). Other articles in the business press have argued that the sensitive, agreeable CEO—as manifested in CEOs such as GE’s Jeffrey Immelt and Boeing’s James McNerney—signals a shift in business culture (Brady, 2007). In many circles, individuals desiring success in their careers are exhorted to be “complimentary,” “kind,” and “good” (for example, Schillinger, 2007). 

Take the example of 500-employee Lindblad Expeditions. It emphasizes agreeableness in its hiring decisions. The VP of HR commented, “You can teach people any technical skill, but you can’t teach them how to be a kindhearted, generous-minded person with an open spirit.” 

So, while employers want agreeable employees, agreeable employees are not better job performers, and they are less successful in their careers. One might explain this apparent contradiction by noting that employers value agreeable employees for other reasons: They are more pleasant to be around, and they may help others in ways that aren’t reflected in their job performance. While the former point seems fair enough—agreeable people are better liked—it’s not clear that agreeable individuals actually help people more. A review of the “organizational citizenship” literature revealed a pretty weak correlation between an employee’s agreeableness and how much he or she helped others. 

Moreover, a...
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