Agreeable Guys* Finish Last

A few weeks back, David Hornick wrote a great piece in Wired UK titled, Nice Guys Finish First. Eventually. In it, he talks of his life’s goal as that of being a successful VC without having to be a jerk. He cites a recent study which paints the picture of a successful leader as someone combative, authoritarian, dominant. The study stands in stark contrast to his stated goal so David posits another interpretation of the data which has the nice guy coming out on top:

The study reminds me of dating. The girls in my school were attracted to the bad boys. Despite the early appeal of the jerks, however, in the end the girls realised that they were better off marrying the nice guys. I think the same is true in business. Selfish, authoritarian leaders may appear attractive at first. But the appeal will wear off.

What the study gets wrong is the timescale. Sometimes aggression and dominance will characterise a strong leader. But company-building is more collaborative than adversarial. Leaders need to co-operate with employees, partners, distributors, customers etc. As a result, executives who optimise for the confrontational aspects of their job, rather than the collaborative ones, will miss the mark. As tempting as it is to use this study as an excuse to become the bad boy of business, I’m convinced the professors have come to the wrong conclusion. Nice guys don’t finish last. It just takes a while for the true value of positive, collaborative leadership to shine through.

Much as I’d like to agree with David I find this definition of “niceness” lacks nuance. As with most defining characteristics,”niceness” is not a trait in and of itself; rather, it’s a collection of personality traits and interpersonal skills that combine to create a “nice” effect.

A new study adds color to the nuances of nice. In it, researchers found that “agreeableness” was more a determining factor in success that niceness. They define agreeableness as (1 the extent to which you value getting along with others, and (2 the degree to which you are willing to be critical of others.

From an HBS article on the study:

Using earnings data, the researchers found that men who rank high in agreeableness make substantially less than men who are less agreeable. Across studies, this difference was as high as $10,000 per year. 

And as for nice guys (and to a lesser extent, nice women) finishing last, let’s recall the two related qualities of agreeableness. Concerning a value for getting along, career advancement requires a willingness to ruffle feathers from time to time. Good leaders need to be able to tell people things that they do not want to hear. 

Career success involves being critical. While some managers may want to surround themselves with people who obediently agree, most want those who will find the flaws in a plan before it is implemented. Less agreeable people are prone to give this kind of criticism.

This insight resonates with me. And reminds me of that old Bernard Shaw quote:

The reasonable (or agreeable) man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with a wide range of entrepreneurs. Most I would consider nice people, some less nice than others. The ones I see get into trouble are the one’s who spend time worrying about what others think. Who incorporate feedback or advice with every iteration. Who agree to things they don’t believe in order to avoid a confrontation or out of fear they will lose their “nice guy” status.

But the founders I’ve seen succeed all seem to share this willingness to be disagreeable. They have conviction around an idea, a feature or a strategy that doesn’t get compromised simply to make others happy.

That doesn’t mean they’re jerks, or that they disregard feedback, on the contrary. They tend to seek out the contradicting view. They value the intellectual exchange. They adapt plans if fatal flaws are discovered. But they understand the difference between making an informed change vs. simply agreeing with someone to end an argument.

I think the definition for agreeableness is a bit squishy, but like many things, you know it when you see or feel it.

Keep the title of this post in mind when that feeling surfaces and act accordingly.

* I use the term “guys” inclusive of women here.