Nice guys really do finish last! (Or at least–not at the top.)
Another of those lessons on how life just isn’t fair. Apparently there is a collective belief among some (although not universal) that groups reward altruistic behavior by giving people showing altruism positions of leadership, higher rank, recognition, or simple respect. In other words, status is given to the altruist. This belief system fails to explain why leaders who behave selfishly attain positions of power, a pattern that seems pretty common. So keep that in mind as you read the rest…
Researchers are now telling us that being “nice” (aka altruistic) can actually pose a barrier to your ascent into a leadership position. Last month, we blogged about how nice guys get paid less than “not nice” guys. Well, guess what. Nice guys also get shut out of leadership positions.
Status has two sides: dominance and prestige. For dominance, think Al Capone. For prestige, think the Dalai Lama. Both have status. But they obviously attain status in very different ways. One through the threat of violence. The other through nonviolent views on democracy and religious harmony (and some would add, through reincarnation karma). And we would also add, one was absolutely terrifying while the other is sweet and the personification of inner grace.
[We use the word “prestige” here as it was used in the study, but that seems to be an inadequate term, as prestige can be achieved by numerous paths. The one used in this study was generosity or kindness, which isn’t by any means the only type of “prestige”.]
So researchers wanted to see what would happen if they had participants rate prestige and dominance separately. They had them play games in small groups of four where they were either allowed to contribute their “chips” to the group endeavor (thus accumulating prestige) or keep their chips to themselves (thus achieving dominance). After they played, the group members rated each other on dominance and prestige. Sure enough, those who selfishly kept their chips were rated “dominant” and those who selflessly contributed their chips for greater group benefit were seen as having “prestige”.
Then the research participants were asked to elect leaders for either a within-group task or a task wherein they would compete against another group of four. You can likely intuit what happened. If the task was a competitive one–dominant individuals were chosen. If the task was a cooperative one–prestigious group members quickly rose to the top.
The researchers conclude that altruism is truly a double-edged sword. Your contribution to the group is “nice” and you are a “nice person” but you may be perceived as “too nice” to have the guts to make tough decisions to advance the group in a competitive endeavor. So group members choose the selfish guy to advance them in a competitive endeavor. Those of us who have been in organizations where the selfish and self-centered guy attained a position of leadership know just how short-sighted this decision is for the life of the organization. Sometimes an organization or a group needs decision-making leadership, and other times what is needed is a consensus-builder.
So what do we make of this research? It would seem that effective leaders would have both dominance and prestige. You want enough dominance to be taken seriously as a leader who can make tough decisions. You want enough altruism (which confers prestige) to be able to have the support and trust of the group behind you. Being a nice guy alone isn’t enough if you want to lead. You have to show some dominance too.
Another application of this research that came to our minds was with regard to wealthy or powerful clients.
How will jurors view them?
How can we assist them in creating an identity that jurors will favor?
America tends to love wealth and power. We elevate such people to celebrity status and credit them with having something to tell us all about life that is simply laughable.
But in litigation, their celebrity (whether it is from being dominant or prestigious) is insufficient for making them worthy of compensation (if plaintiff) or of protection (if defendant). What jurors want to see are facts that justify a verdict, and a party who will use the verdict for the betterment of society, not just themselves. When we are doing initial case strategy involving wealthy clients (individuals and corporate clients) we think about public identity. The jury is not going to work collaboratively with our client, but they will judge that social demeanor as if they did. Among the early questions I ask are:
“What kind of charitable activity do they engage in?”;
“What community programs do they support?”;
“Are they donors to a religious organization?”;
“How do they answer the question: How do you give back to the community/country/world that has granted you such wealth and power?”
And I know that if they don’t have a good answer, we have a problem. Not only because we have nothing to brag about, but because I’m dealing with someone who is only focused on their own narrow self-interest. And jurors don’t like that.
We’re here to tell you that being dominant doesn’t always mean being selfish, self-centered and arrogant. And the sort of selfless “prestige” that was seen here is nurturing, but not a leader for all seasons. Dominance when tempered can also mean being decisive, seeing the bigger picture, and being willing to address conflict directly while still caring about the impact of those decisions on others. Now that’s a leader worth supporting.
Halevy, N., Chou, EY, Cohen, TR, & Livingston, RW (2012). Status conferral in intergroup social dilemmas: Behavioral antecedents and consequences of prestige and dominance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (2), 351-366 DOI: 10.1037/a0025515