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Foolish Bluntness

Why nice guys often finish first.

When I was growing up in New York, the baseball Giants played at the Polo Grounds (for a while the football Giants did as well) and their manager, Leo Durocher, uttered the famous words: “nice guys finish last.” That dictum may work in the world of athletics, but in life it is usually the other way around.

Of course, when addressing matters of success or failure, one needs to ask “first or last in what?” We typically think of success in terms of wealth accumulation, but there are many other outcomes one could mention. One obvious place where nastiness doesn’t buy success is in being loved.

An example can be found in the case of a relative of mine. He was a mean person who loved to bully and humiliate others. After he died, guess how many mourners, other than his wife and grown kids (and even they bad mouth him today), came to his funeral? One or two at most, even given that mine is a family where attending funerals is considered a solemn obligation.

Of course, you could say “he obviously did not care what others thought of him, otherwise he would not have been such an SOB, and besides dead people don’t experience rejection.” But I don’t think he enjoyed being as socially isolated and disliked as he ended up being towards the end of his life, as reflected in the small number of people who visited him during his several lengthy hospital stays. He may have thought that the opinions of others did not matter, but at some point he may have come to understand that thinking only about oneself has its costs.

This brings up an important point, and that is that success usually is measured on two or more parallel outcomes (some not even held as conscious goals by the person) and that while my relative was fairly successful in attaining his monetary goals, he would probably have enjoyed his wealth more if had been loved by others. Furthermore, I think his nastiness held him back in the business sphere as well, as he was the target of several expensive lawsuits and after awhile people were reluctant to do business with him.

A very noticeable arena for illustrating why not-so-nice guys do not usually finish first is the world of organizations, whether corporate or governmental. Here, there are many examples of talented people who rise fairly high in a hierarchy but are frustrated in their quest to grab a much-coveted top job by the fact that they made too many enemies or bruised too many egos along the way.

One notable case just came up in the news this past week, and that involves Susan Rice, who is the current United States Ambassador to the United Nations. She has been talked about as a possible nominee to succeed Hillary Clinton when, as expected, Clinton steps down soon from her post as Secretary of State. Democrats compare her to another African-American female diplomat, Condoleeza Rice, and have been known to say “Our Rice is better than your Rice,” to which Republicans could counter “yes, but our Rice is five times as nice.” It seems that Ambassador Rice is known for being unusually blunt (with much use of salty language) in her dealings with others, including diplomats from other nations, and several of them have been quoted (some by name) in saying that elevating her to Secretary of State would be a big mistake. This has raised some feminist hackles, by those who argue that there is a double standard operating here, whereby females are punished for acting too much (in being aggressive) like males. But I can bring up many examples of males who were similarly thwarted in their race to the top by their lack of sensitivity to the feelings of others.

Two such examples surfaced recently in the corporate world, and they both involved highly-placed male executives at two competing mega-corporations: Apple and Microsoft. Both individuals--Scott Forstall at Apple, Steven Sinofsky at Microsoft--were highly talented techies who were responsible for things that contributed to what their firms were known for: product design at Apple, software development at Microsoft. At one time, both were mentioned as individuals destined to rise to the top level in their respective organizations. However, both were forced to resign, and in both cases news stories noted that the firings were mainly attributable to the men’s bluntness and lack of social skills in dealing with others.

My long-standing interest in social competence has been focused mainly on subjects with intellectual disabilities, where it has often been noted that people with very high IQ have more freedom to be socially inept than is the case for people with very low IQ. That is because for very smart people, social ineptness is attributed to eccentricity, while for intellectually limited people, social ineptness is attributed to stupidity. Thus, paradoxically, we impose higher standards for what we determine is “normal” social behavior in people who one would think should be entitled to having us cut them some slack. Of course, part of the explanation is that people with Intellectual Disability often reside in congregate settings where others monitor and control them constantly, but a big reason for this double standard is that we so value the creativity and contributions of very talented people, that we are willing to tolerate their boorishness as the price we have to pay for what they may contribute to some collective enterprise.

This generalization needs to be qualified, however, as obviously many very talented people have very good social skills, and at some point a talented person’s enfant terrible act can start to wear thin. There is a developmental process at work here, in which social boorishness can be overlooked when one is heavily involved in narrow activities such as development of a product, but as one rises in the management hierarchy with more general responsibilities, social boorishness will be resented and resisted. In part, this is because one is now dealing less with relatively low status individuals (who may resent being abused, but lack the power to do anything about it) and more with relatively high status individuals who are so valuable to the organization that their complaints and threats to leave are taken more seriously. Another developmental factor that likely is operating here is that the organization itself, including its leadership, may have undergone important changes. Thus, it is probably not a coincidence that Mr. Forstall was pushed out of Apple only months after the death of Steve Jobs (not the most socially nice person either, but he was largely immune from consequences of his social ineptness during his second [but not during his first] stint as Apple CEO). It is very possible that Jobs may have been acting as a protector of Forstall, someone whose specialty—product design—was especially dear to his heart.

In terms of my four-factor explanatory model of foolishness, one factor—“personality”—largely explains why overly blunt people behave as they do, and another factor—“cognition” (especially social intelligence)--largely explains why such behavior is ultimately foolish, in that it undermines the attainment of much-desired dreams and goals. There are many factors that contribute to a personality style marked by excessive bluntness, with such a style likely forged during an individual’s early years in the crucible of his or her family life, as reflected for example in Adlerian notions of the drive for power. Ultimately, however, behaving offensively towards others is a choice which one makes, and which one can temper, or become better at controlling, if one is motivated to change. This is where social intelligence comes in, as recognition that one’s behavior is putting one’s basic interests at risk can cause someone to seek insight and help, such as through psychotherapy or coaching assistance. There are some, however, whose pattern of not-nice behavior is so entrenched that they refuse to recognize or acknowledge any need to change. Such individuals are very likely to self-destruct, if not in the short-run then certainly in the long-run. Whether we like it or not, most of us operate in settings where whether we are liked or disliked has a lot to do with whether we finish first or last. Anyone who fails to recognize or heed that reality is, in my opinion, a fool.

Copyright, Stephen Greenspan