Being a ‘nice guy’ becomes a threat to men’s earning power as soon as they turn 30

Mean guys sometimes see a salary bump.

caption
Mean guys sometimes see a salary bump.
source
Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design/Flickr

  • A man’s salary over the course of his lifetime is strongly linked to his personality, new research finds.
  • Starting at age 30, men who are conscientious, extroverted, and disagreeable tend to earn more than others. This effect continues into their 40s and 50s.
  • Personality is a stronger predictor of lifetime earnings for highly educated men.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review comes to a somewhat nauseating conclusion: Nice guys don’t do as well at work as mean guys.

The author, Miriam Gensowski, who is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Copenhagen, describes a study she published this year in the journal Labour Economics. Genswoski analyzed the results of the Terman study, which followed a group of about 1,500 high-IQ individuals from childhood to old age (1920s to 1990s).

She looked specifically at the links between childhood personality, lifetime earnings, and education to figure out which traits affect men and women’s professional success, and when.

Results showed that more agreeable – i.e. nicer and friendlier – men earned significantly less than other men. This isn’t typically true for young workers – the effect is only visible once men turn 30, and it’s strongest between ages 40 and 60.

As Gensowski writes in HBR, a man who is in the top 20% of agreeableness will earn about $270,000 less over their lifetime than the average working man.

Two other traits that stood out in Gensowski’s research are extroversion and conscientiousness, or being organized and hardworking. Men who score high on both traits tend to reap higher salaries: She writes in HBR that a man who is average on extroversion will earn $600,000 more in his lifetime than a man who is in the bottom 20% of extroversion.

Gensowski also notes that the effects of personality are strongest in highly educated men. Being conscientious, extroverted, and disagreeable makes much more of a difference for a man with a master’s degree or a doctorate than it does for a man with a bachelor’s.

It’s harder to say how women’s personality traits are related to their earnings in Gensowski’s study, given that she says only about half the women were working. (Recall that this study started in the 1920s, when women’s professional opportunities were more limited.)

Other research suggests agreeable people are less likely to become leaders

Gensowski’s findings are supported by earlier research. For example, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology also found that agreeable men tend to earn less than their peers, and that this effect is virtually nonexistent for women. (From that study: “For men, it literally pays to be a contrarian.”)

Other data suggests that agreeable people – especially agreeable men – are less likely to hold leadership positions. Meanwhile, those who display both conscientiousness and extroversion are more likely to become leaders.

In his 2013 book “Habits of Leadership,” psychologist Art Markman suggests that employees appreciate a boss who can give frank feedback – and agreeable people may have a hard time providing criticism.

One interesting caveat to this research: As Markman writes in “Habits of Leadership,” disagreeable people tend to be more likely to lose their jobs and to be less well-liked than agreeable people.