Wired for Success

How to fulfill your potential

Why Nice Guys Can Finish First

Our notion that "nice guys finish last" is obsolete.

We’ve often heard the phrase, “I don’t like him but I respect him,” or reference is made comparing someone to a certain part of the anatomy while expressing some degree of admiration. In particular, our culture for some time has embraced the notion that the strongest, toughest and most aggressive leaders get the job done and are more desirable, than more “likeable,” or humble people who are viewed to be weak.

So we have often also heard the expression that “nice guys” finish last, whether it’s in reference to the choice of a new CEO or a prospective date.  But do nice guys really finish last? Or is that another myth we need to abandon?

New research by Jon Bohlmann and Rob Handfield of North Carolina State University, Tianjao Qiu of California State university, William Qualls and Deborah Rupp of the University Illinois published in The Journal of Product Innovation Management, shows that project managers got much better performance from their team when they treated team members with honesty, kindness and respect. Bohlmann explains “if you think you re being treated well, you are going to work well with others on your team.”

See All Stories In

When Good Guys Finish First

Compassion is the winner in love and competition.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Sir Richard Branson, in his interview in Entrepreneur magazine, was asked if aggression is necessary for business success. He replied by saying he believed he was successful at Virgin “because we engaged with everyone in a positive, inclusive manner rather than an aggressive, combative or negative way.”

Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world’s top executive coaches, writing in the magazine Fast Company, argues “all other things being equal, your people skills often make the difference in how high you go.” He says “it’s not enough to be smart—you have to be smart—and something else.”

David Rand, a post-doctoral fellow in Harvard’s Department of Psychology, is lead author of a new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that dynamic, complex social networks encourage their members to be friendlier and more cooperative, while selfish behavior can lead to an individual being shunned from the group.

Rand concludes people in social networks re-write their social networks in intriguing ways that helped both themselves and the group they were in. They were more willing to make new connections or maintain existing connections with those who acted generously and break connections with those who behaved selfishly. “Basically, what it boils down to is that you’d better be a nice guy, or else you’re going to get cut off,” he says.

These studies reflect a much bigger question of whether people essentially act out of self-interest, which would encourage the aggressive and egotistical to be more successful.

Dachel Keltner, a University of California psychologist and author of Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, and a number of his fellow colleagues are building the case that humans are the successful dominant species because of our compassionate, kind, altruistic and nurturing traits. One of these studies has shown that many people are genetically predisposed to be empathetic.

“The new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion is finally catching up with Darwin’s observations nearly 130 years ago that compassion is our strongest instinct,” argues Keltner.

University of California, Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, argues the more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield. He contends “that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated, but those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status.”

Martin Nowak and Roget Highfield, authors of SuperCooperators, contend “cooperation and competition are forever entwined in a tight embrace.” They argue in pursuing our self-interested goals, we often have an incentive to repay kindness with kindness. We have an incentive to establish a reputation for niceness, so others will want to work with us.

Jonathan Haidt, author of Righteous Mind, reflects the view of Edward O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson and others who argue that when groups of animals compete, it’s the cohesive, cooperative, internally altruistic groups that win and pass on their genes. Stephen Post, president of the Institute on Unlimited Love at Case Western Reserve University, and author of several studies published by such groups as the American Medical Association, and author of Why Good Things happened to Good People, has written about the link between good thoughts and good deeds.

Despite these recent findings, our movies, T.V., and news media continue to project the image of a tough, no-nonsense leader such as Donald Trump, who are not generally liked by other people, as examples of the kind of people we are drawn to, trust or wish to lead us, reinforcing the now clearly questionable notion of the survival of the fittest and strongest.

Modern evidence seems to suggest that nice guys do finish first, and we want them to.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

more...

Subscribe to Wired for Success

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?