Nice Guys v. Jerks – Who wins?

There is an interesting academic debate going on in the US about whether it is “nice guys” or “jerks” who finish on top in business. This is an old debate that seems to have been sparked by Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs that, in many people’s opinion, painted him as an asshole (using the US vernacular) who became one of the most successful businessmen of all time. The biography seems to support the wisdom of Machiavelli and sporting coaches that “nice guys come last”.   Many modern thinkers argue (or maybe hope) that this sports cliché does not apply in business. Until recently the debate was simply a clash of personal opinion.

Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, addressed the sporting cliché and delivered the hard research data in his 2013 book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives our Success. He looked at leadership through a lens of “givers” and “takers”. He defined givers as people focused on others and who do not try to get everything for themselves. Rather they share their ideas, skills and experience in order to help everyone do better. People seem to like givers but that doesn’t make them all “nice guys.”

Grant’s takers are people who focus on themselves and are primarily “looking out for Number One”.   Takers think about business and life as a zero sum game – you either win or you lose – so when interacting with others you have to get as much value for yourself as you can. That doesn’t necessarily mean that takers are deliberately nasty or immoral, although some can be. The essence of the terms “jerk” and “asshole”, has much in common with clinical psychologist’s definitions of narcissism and sociopathy. All these terms describe people whose main interest is themselves and, in interactions with others, take more than their entitlement with no regard for other people’s feeling. Those at the anti-social end of the psychological spectrum are invariably takers.

Grant’s research findings can be summarised as follows:

  • Takers are more successful in the short term for they concentrate all their energies on their own advancement.
  • Givers can be more successful in the long term for they are natural team members and collaborators and have the greater ability to build relationship capital through goodwill, trust and high reputation.
  • The “nice guys” do come last.  At the bottom of the success spectrum are givers who focus on other people’s needs to their own detriment.  By always being agreeable they become a “doormat” for the Takers.
  • Those at the very top of the success spectrum are “disagreeable givers”.  These people continue their giving while asserting their own career needs and excelling at networking, collaborating and using their relationship capital to influence others. Disagreeable givers also understand that leaders have to be “jerks” sometime.

A 2012 study on taker behaviour by a Dutch researcher illustrates and summarises the simple findings of the Grant research and many other academic studies on leader behaviour.

Two people are told that they are needed to perform a task. One person (a male) is a confederate of the researcher and part of every study. In one series of experiments coffee is at hand and the confederate pours a coffee for the other. The others take a negative view of the confederate’s leadership potential. In another series the confederate steals a cup of coffee for himself from an unattended desk. Others rate him as a “jerk”. In another series the confederate again steals coffee but this time shares it with the other. Others rate the confederate as a person with high leadership potential.

The simple messages:

  • Being “nice” won’t make you a more successful leader.
  • Break rules to benefit yourself and your team members will think you a “jerk”.
  • Break rules to benefit the team and your team members will want you to be in charge.

As the study points out, acceptance of a behaviour depends on its purpose. Jerks and takers engage in behaviours to satisfy their own ego. These behaviours are not always acceptable. Disagreeable givers don’t get a charge by being tough, they do it for the greater purpose of creating more successful teams and a prosperous organization.

Finally, these are some behaviours or attitudes that are associated with disagreeable givers:

  1. Smile at the customer (be nice).
  2. Let the other person fill the silence (be a listener).
  3. Don’t give priority to your own feelings.
  4. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
  5. Take the initiative.
  6. Be tough and humane.
  7. Challenge ideas not the people who hold them
  8. Tweak a few rules.
  9. “Steal coffee for your colleagues” (capture resources for the team).
  10. Jealously guard the impression that you know what you are doing.

Many thanks to Dr John Waters for his contribution to this blog.


Mark Rosenberg