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Being mean for fun, profit

Three distinguished university professors probably were unaware of what they started when they published their study, "Do Nice Guys — and Gals — Really Finish Last? The Joint Effects of Sex and Agreeableness on Income."

The answer is maybe not last but not a close second either, especially for men. You may want to run out and get your copy of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It may contain important career advice.

In a survey of 3,500 workers, men who described themselves as being nice, easy, cooperative and kind earned 18 percent less — $9,770 a year — than men who described themselves as disagreeable.

The professors were clever if they got workers to describe themselves as disagreeable. Filling out a test for your company generally entails trying to dope out what qualities the brass are looking for and tailoring the answers to fit. There's generally a category where you're asked to describe your worst quality. It should be one of the following: (a) I expect too much of myself and drive myself too hard; (b) I can't let go of a project until I'm sure it's perfect; (c) I care just too darned much about this company.

But co-author Timothy Judge of Notre Dame zeroes in on "agreeableness," one of psychology's Big Five dimensions of personality. "It generally refers to someone who is warm, sympathetic, kind and cooperative (in short, a 'nice' person), and is the most valued characteristic cited when people are asked to identify with whom they want to spend time."

I can see those qualities disqualifying someone from being a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers or an enforcer for the Philadelphia Flyers. But aren't our workplaces supposed to be pleasant? Apparently not. Employers have decided that we can't have nice people cluttering up our cubicles.

The situation is not quite as bad for women, but probably because they don't make that much in the first place. Disagreeable women make only 5 percent — $1,828 a year — more than their more pleasant sisters.

This is America, so the Internet is full of self-help for people who want to be unpleasant at work, although my experience is they come by it naturally. But the evidence is there. Judge and his colleagues, Beth Livingston of Cornell and Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario, conclude, "Agreeableness is negatively related to income and earnings."

Some of the websites counsel insults like:

"I'll try being nicer if you'll try being smarter."

"Are you always this stupid or are you making a special effort today?"

"He does the work of three men: Larry, Curly and Moe."

I knew a copy editor who, when confronted with a impenetrable piece of reporting, would console the reporter, "Maybe it read better in the original Urdu."

Where Judge and company come in is conducting seminars on the fine line between being forceful in presentations, willing to buck the consensus of a meeting and howling with laughter when management says the staff has to do more with less; and being so annoying to your co-workers you're afraid to get in the elevator with them.

Some of the telltale signs you may have crossed the line: The sandwich you left in the office refrigerator for lunch smells faintly of cat urine. You are regularly misinformed about meeting times. On your day off the sweet young intern is given your computer and every icon she touches leads to a porn site.

Maybe one of the reasons the agreeable people aren't paid as well is that they spend so much company time plotting against the disagreeable people.

I used to work at an adjoining desk with another reporter. We would schmooze as our shift came to an end and precisely when it did, he would abruptly stand up and announce "I'd stay and talk with you but I'm on my own time now."

I'm on my own time.

© 2011 Scripps Howard News Service

Being mean for fun, profit 08/18/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 18, 2011 5:53pm]
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