It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the aggravation of dealing with someone who’s not very nice. Mean people are annoying at best and destructive at worst. However, as difficult as it might seem to imagine, there are people whose niceness becomes just as much of a social stumbling block.
On the one hand, we tend to be distrustful of people who seem genuinely nice: What’s their ulterior motive? Are they trying to get something out of you? Is it a case of psychopathy hidden beneath an altruist’s clothing? We might also feel distrustful of nice people’s intentions if we suspect them of being passive-aggressive. It’s not that they’re necessarily trying to con you; it’s that they find it inwardly amusing to never seem to let anything bother them: You step on their toes and they apologize. It just doesn’t seem right.
The psychological of niceness is the personality trait of agreeableness. People high on the trait of agreeableness tend to show these six qualities:
In a committed long-term relationship, as you might imagine, people high in agreeableness tend to be better partners. Curtin (Australia) University’s Sarah Egan and colleagues showed that among a college student sample, those high in agreeableness also reported higher levels of satisfaction with their relationships. It makes sense that if you’re easy-going and focused on the needs of others, able to communicate directly, and trusting, you would also feel better about your relationship and probably be a better partner as well.
But can agreeableness go too far? If you’re a highly agreeable relationship partner, you might also try hard to avoid conflict and confrontation. Although the undergraduates in the study might have indeed felt better about their current relationships, we know from other research on long-term relationships that conflict avoidance is a predictor of problems down the road. Couples need to be able to resolve their disagreements in a constructive manner. Agreeable people will undoubtedly be less likely to become accusatory and confrontational, but they may also shy away from conflict, period. Over time, conflict avoidance leads couples to become more distant and lose their intimate connections.
In the workplace, being high on agreeableness could also present a double-edged sword. The agreeable worker may not complain even if there’s a basis for complaining. Most bosses probably wish for a team of highly agreeable workers. However, the tendency to go along with the group, regardless of how they personally feel, can also lead these agreeable employees to become complacent and never question the status quo.
Investigating this possibility, University of Richmond’s Dejun Tony Kong and colleagues (2015) asked 230 senior-level professionals enrolled in an executive Masters of Business Administration (EMBA) program (those with at least a 15-year work history) to participate in a team performance online simulation. The idea behind the research was that highly agreeable teams could be subject to groupthink, the tendency to ignore alternative strategies to solving problems. Because no one would argue with anyone else, the highly agreeable team could actually perform less successfully than a team with at least one dissenter.
Each of the 4-to-7-member teams (there were 42 teams in all) were given a task in which they played the role of “change consultants” hired by companies to improve performance. The team-related performance behaviors the Kong et al. researchers measured included communication, coordination, conflict resolution, and decision-making. Participants also rated their satisfaction with their team at the outset of the simulation, and completed a questionnaire that measured their own individual levels of agreeableness.
Kong and his colleagues then aggregated each team’s agreeableness scores to give it an overall rating. The investigation of team performance took place over a 20-month period. Because participants rated their satisfaction with the team at the beginning, the researchers could examine the extent to which first impressions influenced the outcomes as they materialized over time.
The question, then, was whether people who were more satisfied with their team would also perform at a higher level. But this did not emerge from the findings. Instead, team agreeableness became the key factor. Teams low in agreeableness showed a higher relationship between their initial satisfaction and their ultimate performance than did those teams high in agreeableness. As stated by the researchers:
“A low level of agreeableness enables more satisfied team members to reduce their susceptibility to groupthink, searching for more information and engaging more in problem solving, whereas a high level of agreeableness impairs these functions that facilitate team performance” (p. 170).
Teams, as the Kong et al. research shows, can have “personalities.” Of course, the group’s personality is only as agreeable as that of its members. These findings showed that having someone who’s a little cranky on your team might actually make it more effective. Conversely, when everyone values getting along more than their results, they can fail to actualize their potential.
Translating these findings to your everyday life, it might be worthwhile to consider the value of shaking things up once in a while to help avoid groupthink. In your close relationships, this doesn’t mean you suddenly lash out at your partner with no provocation. It does suggest that you don’t need to feel the pressure always to go along with what your partner wants, especially if there’s something at stake. (Examples might include making large purchases, or deciding who’s going to take the kids off to school each morning.) At work, you might similarly consider the value that less-agreeable colleagues might add to the overall effectiveness of your company.
It’s okay to shake things up once in a while. Who knows, it might even benefit your long-term fulfillment.
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Egan, S. J., Vinciguerra, T., & Mazzucchelli, T. G. (2015). The role of perfectionism, agreeableness, and neuroticism in predicting dyadic adjustment. Australian Journal Of Psychology, 67(1), 1-9. doi:10.1111/ajpy.12038
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016
Kong, D. T., Konczak, L. J., & Bottom, W. P. (2015). Team performance as a joint function of team member satisfaction and agreeableness. Small Group Research, 46(2), 160-178. doi:10.1177/1046496414567684