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Do Nice Project Managers Finish Last?

written by: Linda Richter • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 1/9/2013

In today's corporate climate, being nice doesn't get you any extra bucks. In fact, research shows that easygoing project managers earn less than task masters, although men in either of these categories earn more than women.

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    Don't Be a Doormat

    Years ago I saw a cartoon in the newspaper. I can no longer remember the cartoonist’s name, but it was at least two decades past, so Lying Down I’m going to tell you about it anyway. It had a woman lying on the floor saying, to a man who was walking away from her, “Come back! There’s a piece of my face you didn’t step on yet!" If that sounds like you—or someone you know—then read on.

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    Aggressive People: The Main Moneymakers

    Kimberly Weisul in the CBS Interactive Business Network (BNET) wrote about the hazards of being too nice. According to a bunch of professors—they’re from great places like the University of Notre Dame, Cornell University and the University of Western Wikimedia Commons Grapefruit-james cagney-mae clark21a Ontario—nice people definitely earn less money than meanies. Anyone who’s ever seen Jimmy Cagney shove a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face knows that it pays to be nasty and bossy, and research proves that being aggressive is a great way to move up the pay scale.

    In the world of project management, most leaders learn to walk that fine line between assertiveness and aggressiveness. You can’t be too disagreeable to your project team, or you won’t motivate them to do their best work. By the same token, if you’re too nice, you may at some point find yourself working under someone from your project team—someone who leapfrogs over you and takes charge of a future project. So what can we learn from this research?

    The study shows that men make more than women, but we already knew that. No matter how many bras the women burned in the '70s or how many marches they went on, all the women’s libbers ever achieved was getting pregnancy designated as a pre-existing medical condition. Yes, I was there, that’s it. It’s like what that guy says in the movie, Crazy Stupid Love: the women’s liberation movement ended as soon as women started doing pole dancing for exercises.

    So we know for certain that women as a rule earn less than the brawny sex. But that’s who the researchers saved their big surprise for: Nice men are the real losers in this study. Nasty men earn $7,000 to $10,000 more per year than their sweeter male counterparts. On the other hand, mean women only earn $1,000 to $3,000 more than nice women. That means if you’re a man, being a brat costs you a minimum of $4,000 more than it costs a woman. If you’re a mean woman, you can gnash your teeth about it, but you’re still not gonna get more money than a man.

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    The Research Also Shows...

    The researchers defined the word “agreeable" as helpful, friendly, warm, caring, softhearted, outspoken and sympathetic. Researchers performed at least two trials within the study using homonymic definitions of agreeableness. Plus, the quality of agreeableness was measured along with four other traits: extraversion, conscientiousness, neurosis, openness. Besides the pay differential, the researchers also concluded:

    • The only other quality that affects earnings is neurosis. The more neurotic you are, the more money you will earn.
    • Extraversion, openness and conscientiousness do nothing for your paycheck, be you male or female.
    • Agreeable people will be glad to know they are less likely to be fired and more likely to have easy jobs. The mean-tempered people who lose their jobs are more likely to climb their way into higher-paying positions, while the nice people stay put.
    • Age is not a factor in pay scale vis-à-vis agreeableness.

    In another study unearthed by Weisul, researchers from the University of Amsterdam “asked people to give their impressions of others who were ill-behaved." Participants looked at examples of boorish behaviors and attributed those people with qualities of decisiveness, strength, control, power and leadership.

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    Nice Versus (Kinda) Nasty

    What are the researchers really telling us? I keep using the words “nasty" and “mean," but what do those words mean in the workplace? I want to find another way to define un-agreeableness, besides using nastiness. Ruthless always makes me think of someone riding along on a motorcycle with Ruth, and then if Ruth falls off, the person rides on ruthlessly. Harshness is very similar to the name of an attorney in my town who sues people. Callousness just means you need a pedicure.

    Who do you want to be in the world of agreeableness versus nastiness?

    • Think of Lucy and Ethel: Ethel was always the patsy, and Lucy used her shamelessly to get her way. But Ricky, of course, being the man, with both more power and more money, unfailingly triumphed over Lucy and kept her in her place.

    MGM screenshot Gone with the Wind 

    • Then there were Scarlett and Mellie, both vying for Ashley’s affections—although Mellie didn’t know it. Mellie won that one, but then Ashley turned out to be really weak and nice; both of the women were crazy for not wanting Rhett. Well, Scarlett wanted him in the end, but Rhett didn’t give a damn.
    • What about two men? Think about Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy. Ratso was a…well, a ratso; he would’ve trumped the heck out of Joe Buck except he got sick.
    • Take the two Lethal Weapons guys, played by Mel Gibson and Danny Glover—who cares what their names were. Danny Glover was way nicer than Mel, and he got his house blown up.
    • Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot was the nice guy, playing a girl all the time and dancing with Buster Keaton, while Tony Curtis played footsie with Marilyn Monroe.
    • Who gets the big bucks in the Miss America pageant, Miss Congeniality or Miss America? Yes, for all we know, Miss America selfishly holds Miss Congeniality at bay during the contest by spiking her coffee with caffeine pills so she develops big circles under her eyes from lack of sleep and loses. Actually, the real winner in the pageant, pulling in big bucks for minimal work, is the moderator, who is usually a man.
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    Communicate Demands Carefully

    Wikimedia Commons, Smiling, Jonathunder The researchers tell us that people who score high in agreeableness work harder on their interpersonal relationships—a very desirable trait in today’s culture of collaborative team efforts. Those people work toward doing things for one another without considering how they stand to benefit. There's nothing wrong with turning that behavior around and deciding on a goal and then setting out to get it. Take the mother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. She describes to her daughter the partnership of marriage—that the husband is the head. But, she says, “The neck turns the head."

    That is not far from the advice of researcher Timothy Judd, whose work is featured in Weisul’s article as well as Shannon Capla’s piece on the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza Business College website. He says, “Women should not compromise…it’s even more important for them to be aggressive in what they ask for." However, he continues, “When women ask for more, they are likely to have their motives questioned…women must present their requests in a gentle, non-threatening way…the way women communicate their demands matters more than it does for men."

    So, you can be nice. You can remain fully cognizant of your ulterior motive and still get your way. Your motive, of course, is to be agreeable—no, be assertive; the heck with the other guy. Whether you're a man or a woman, be the neck and turn the head. Of course, that’s manipulative--but just think of it as a new communication style. After all, what do you want, more pay all year-long like your nasty coworker, or a silly recognition ceremony once a year with nothing but a plaque—not even a gas card—for being nice?

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