Nice Guys Don’t Finish First

Discussion
Oct 13, 2011
George Anderson

Nice guys may not always finish last, but a new study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and the Stanford Graduate School of Business suggests they’re not likely to finish on top either.

Being altruistic, it turns out, helps to raise a person’s prestige in the workplace, but it is also may lead coworkers to view the individual as gullible or weak.

"Being selfish makes you seem more dominant and being dominant makes you seem more attractive as a leader, especially when there’s competition," Robert Livingston, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, told MSNBC.

Interestingly, while selfishness may help someone climb the corporate ladder, it does not equate to leadership, according to some experts.

Rob Kaplan, former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs who currently teaches management practice at Harvard Business, told MSNBC that leaders are those with "values, adherence to ideals, a vision, a mission they believe in; a person that has high ideals. I’m not saying you have to be a nice guy or a woman to be a CEO, but I think you have to have integrity, values, and work with people, cultivate people."

Prof. Livingston told The Globe and Mail, "The study found that contributing generously to the group can actually lower your status. That’s counter to what other research has shown, but we found there is a difference between the prestige and admiration you get from other people, and what people perceive as your power and dominance."

Discussion Questions: Is being nice a career liability and being nasty an asset? Do you think the advancement of selfish individuals up the corporate ladder has had an effect (positive or negative) on corporate performance in the U.S.?

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19 Comments on "Nice Guys Don’t Finish First"


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Fabien Tiburce
Guest
Fabien Tiburce
9 years 7 months ago

First, selfishness is a weakness, by any standard. I don’t mean moral standard either. I mean selfishness is an inability to see other people’s perspectives and thus an inability to influence and inspire them. Real leaders, like the late Steve Jobs, are driven and may be incredibly strong headed. But that quality does make them influential and respected. Selfishness = bad, drive = good, not because of some moral standard but because drive accomplishes results, selfishness doesn’t.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

True story — overheard at a company cocktail party. First speaker “He’s a nice guy”; response “Yes, but he may be too nice a guy to be President.” The person ultimately picked to lead the company was regarded as not as nice a person but more forceful in his approach. Less than two years later he was escorted out of the building.

Can you be perceived as too nice? This incident would support that theory. On the other hand it also supports that fact being perceived as not nice guy can get you removed from your position. The issue is that in too many cases being nice is confused with being weak. They are not the same.

Dan Berthiaume
Guest
Dan Berthiaume
9 years 7 months ago

“Nice” in situations like this usually is a synonym for “wimpy, insecure, wishy washy” so in that respect nice people typically don’t move high up the corporate ladder. The problem is people often assume there is no middle ground between “nice” and “selfish,” or that a person must be selfish to be aggressive and decisive as a leader. A brief look at the economy for the past few years is all anyone needs to understand what happens when the selfish people are allowed to take over.

Bob Phibbs
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

I think personality type is what we’re really talking about. I wrote about the Amiable – nice guys finish last here. They are great number twos but inherently avoid risk. The ancient Greeks were first to see the pluses and limitations of all four personalities. I suggest with my clients they were onto something.

Dick Seesel
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Alphas have been emerging on top going back to the apes at the start of “2001”…so it’s no surprise that they rise to the top in corporate settings. But the article presents a somewhat false choice: Is it possible to have the leadership skill to reach a CEO position and still have one’s values intact? I think each of us can think of plenty of positive as well as negative examples.

Meanwhile, the good news for “betas” is that other recent studies show they can expect a greater life expectancy!

Charles P. Walsh
Guest
Charles P. Walsh
9 years 7 months ago
It is a fact; self serving, selfish and egotistical individuals rise in position within corporations. Many of the things that made them stand out, bold ideas, stubborn adherence to change and inability to be distracted from their goals, at whatever the cost, helped them on their rise to the top. These characteristics define the success of an individual but don’t always translate into success for a company. Steve Jobs was, as Fabian politely describes him, incredibly strong headed. This was great when Steve was the de facto titular head of Apple. Now that he is gone how will it serve Apple in the future. Did Steve Jobs do any favors for the company in the long run? Did his “strong headedness” mean that there is no lasting structure to perpetuate the success within Apple after his departure? Time will tell. Good guys finishing last isn’t always the case and examples of it can be found within departments in probably every Fortune 500 companies, but those positions which are most influential and most visible almost always… Read more »
Warren Thayer
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

You can be “nice” or “not nice,” but without a strong dose of assertiveness and confidence you won’t get far. I’ve known CEOs of all stripes and track records, but they’ve all been assertive and confident. In most large companies (vs. entrepreneurial ones) you also have to have lots of gravitas, knee-high socks and suspenders.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
9 years 7 months ago

I think we can take a cue from the late Steve Jobs on this one. His tyrannical style of management accepted no less than perfection and innovation from his team and that’s what propelled Apple to the top. Most industries are very competitive and being nice doesn’t always mean being productive. But I still believe there can be a fair balance between a big meanie and an approachable manager.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
9 years 7 months ago
From my years of heading non-profit LeaderShape, Inc., where we were dedicated to developing young adults to lead with integrity, and in my own career as well, I do not believe that nasty and selfish are prime career assets nor do I necessarily believe they are pure liabilities when taken out of context. As we RW panelists have our perspectives on leadership, I focus on advancement in this dimension. You start by acquiring an in-depth knowledge of the business, have constant high ideals, maintain consistent demonstrated integrity, think creatively outside of the box, respect and credit others as well as yourself, set an objective to produce results better than anyone else is producing them and then persevere, persevere, persevere. That usually makes the ladder easier to climb. Of course, some who don’t conduct their career in that upfront manner will possibly label you as selfish, nasty, dominating or whatever meets their rationale if you pass them on the way up. Since corporate goals, overly generous board members, and personal rewards are usually highly materialistic, it… Read more »
Dr. Emmanuel Probst
Guest
Dr. Emmanuel Probst
9 years 7 months ago

Beyond attending Ivy league’s schools, being nice, nasty and/or selfish, I feel that career advancement is really driven by Emotional Intelligence. Most C level executives have Higher EQs, and it shows. I recommend reading ‘Emotional Intelligence 2.0’. This is a short book that gives a great overview of the discipline for those of you who may not be familiar with EI.

Joan Treistman
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

You don’t have to love me…just respect me. If corporate leaders were nice, idle gossip would be boring. I don’t think there is enough discussion in this article regarding other criteria for executive effectiveness. We all know the stories of incompetency being rewarded with loftier titles and associated salaries. I’m thinking about the move one man made from Home Depot to Chrysler.

At the end of the day I think boards are typically detached from what will contribute to success in the company they govern. Hence they often select corporate leaders based on past credentials that are polished for the CV. For the board it’s an unintended crap shoot. Unfortunately, companies and their employees suffer the consequences of the gamble.

Paul Flanigan
Guest
Paul Flanigan
9 years 7 months ago

Hmmm. This is too subjective, I think.

If you ask everyone around the leader, they will have one opinion. If you ask the leader s/he will have another opinion.

This also depends on who you are. If I run a business, I want a CEO who will make me tons of money. Money doesn’t have emotions, or morals, or virtues.

I don’t condone being a jerk, but beauty (or lack thereof) is in the eye of the beholder.

Ian Percy
Guest
9 years 7 months ago
We’re putting new wine in old skins in this discussion. The assumption seems to be that the major ‘given’ in this conversation is that “first” (meaning being at the top of a fear-driven bureaucratic organizational chart, the profit ‘end’ justifies the mean ‘means’, or how well your company dominates a market space at the demise of vendors and competitors) is more valuable than “last” (we’re not so sure what this means other than that you weren’t ‘first’ as described above. There is no discussion of second or third). Assuming this framework is a huge mistake if what you want is sustainable success. Ancient scriptures says the “first shall be last and the last shall be first.” That’s because there’s something intrinsic in those mindsets that sooner or later causes inversion. “First” is ego-driven, controlling, demanding, take-no-prisoners but take all you can. “Last” is a focus on the greater good, on quiet confidence, seeing value in others and that good is greater than evil. We see this ‘Law of Inversion’ in politics, religion, business and pretty… Read more »
Devangshu Dutta
Guest
Devangshu Dutta
9 years 7 months ago

“Selfishness” and “ego” separate us from others, and provide us our sense of identity. Ego is not the equivalent of nasty. Ego is necessary for leadership — how else can you presume to direct others, as a leader is meant to in any organization, business or non-business? On the other hand — being a doormat doesn’t mean you’re “nice” — it just means you’re not a leader.

I find Jim Collins’ description of “Level 5 leadership” an appropriate model to follow: ego provides the drive and the direction, but is tempered by the mature awareness that there is a collective purpose beyond the leader’s own personality.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

“I think you have to have integrity, values, and work with people, cultivate people….”

from the (former) Vice Chairman of an investment bank, no less! If nothing else, I’m sure this article provided mirth — if not a riot of laughter — from everyone who read it.

There’s not much I can add, since the subjectivity of the terminology is apparent, and one can find a wealth of examples to support every conceivable position. But I think the genius of the U.S. — both as a society and an economy — was to recognize both the potential and peril of selfishness, and have systems in place to channel this power productively…to look at “selfishness” (however defined) in isolation is meaningless.

Larry Negrich
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

I do think that being too nice (to the point of acquiescing to all requests) or being too nasty (always looking out for only your best interests at the cost of all around you) will definitely catch up to you. But I think the niceness factor is over analyzed and over emphasized. More focus should be on the individual’s passion for the end goal. Passionate people are great to work for and with, even when they are demanding, cranky, etc. They become great leaders (learning to handle people and the other requirements of the position) in order to achieve what they are passionate about.

Herb Sorensen
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

“Selfish” has gotten an unwarranted and misguided rap. The fact is that the general welfare of society is driven by the multitude selfish, competing interests, that drive the cart forward. It is NOT driven by “benevolent, wise” men who make brilliant decisions for all. I highly recommend “I-pencil” for a clear illustration of how and why this works.

Typically, you will make the very best possible contribution to society when you do the very best for yourself. That forces you to submit to the judgment of your fellow citizens, in the marketplace. They will judge you ($$$) by your contribution to THEIR welfare, as they individually see it. This is what drives prosperity for all.

Eliott Olson
Guest
Eliott Olson
9 years 7 months ago

It depends on you definition of nice. Is it nice to set tough goals? Is it nice to give a fair and accurate job assessment is the age of grade inflation? Is it nice to get rid of the bottom 10% of your staff every year because they are holding the 90% back? Is it nice to want perfection?

Tadeusz Myszka
Guest
Tadeusz Myszka
9 years 7 months ago

A real leader does not have to be nasty to be effective. A real person does not live a double life — dominant power wielding at work while being unselfish and consultative at home. How can you relate selfishness with good leadership? Eventually it only leads to fear and corruption — so it is not surprising to see American business in so much trouble.

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