Recent press articles about research relating ‘niceness’ to the Agreeableness personality factor have caught our eye!
The research we spotted was conducted for Monarch Airlines by Jonathan Freeman and colleagues at Goldsmiths University of London. It followed earlier research on the benefits of being nice – for both staff and passengers. One finding of the study was that self-reported niceness was positively correlated with Agreeableness. Is it the case that niceness is just a personality trait where people higher in Agreeableness are nicer and that those lower are just not nice? Are we born nice or can we learn to be nice? Is being nice necessary or conducive to business success?
Valuing niceness isn’t new. Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval popularised the importance of kindness in business in ‘The Power of Nice’ published in 2006. They argued that you don’t have to be mean to succeed in business. Dale Carnegie was making similar arguments in his 1937 book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. Nonetheless, the stereotype of the self-centred, high achievement oriented business person willing to do whatever is needed to get to the top is well established in our culture.
Many successful people have had a reputation for failing the niceness test – Steve Jobs perhaps being the most well-known. On this basis it could be argued that the nice and the nasty can both succeed – they just have different ways of achieving success.
To explore the relationship between being nice and personality it’s helpful to look more closely at the definitions of Agreeableness and niceness. High Agreeableness is typically defined in terms of being good-natured, cooperative, compassionate and trustful with a tendency to put others first. Low agreeableness is typified by being more independent, analytical, suspicious, skeptical, competitive and argumentative. The definition of high Agreeableness fits closely with our everyday usage of ‘nice’. This suggests a danger of circularity in arguments that bring the two together in research.
When used in reference to people the Oxford dictionary supplies the following synonyms of nice: pleasant, likeable, agreeable, personable, charming, delightful, amiable, affable, friendly, kindly, genial, congenial, good-natured, engaging, gracious, sympathetic, understanding, compassionate, good. The opposites of nice are implicit, but obvious and negative in tone – and this is where the difficulty lies.
Personality and niceness
One thing that we know about personality traits is that they are to a degree determined by our genetic inheritance. For Agreeableness heritability estimates have been estimated as high as 41%. Therefore our tendency to show agreeable behaviours is determined partly by our genes. On this evidence it can be argued that some of us are simply born to be nicer than others.
Our everyday usage of nice as a description of others is essentially “unipolar” – people sit on a dimension defined by a single quality from very nice to not at all nice. However, the psychometric understanding of the trait of Agreeableness is that it has two poles with clearly defined end positions. Understanding ‘niceness’ in the context of trait Agreeableness helps to provide a more balanced understanding of the pros and cons of high and low Agreeableness.
When defining Criticality – the Quintax interpretation of Agreeableness – we included the cognitive as well as the relationship implications of the factor. One of the key attributes of lower agreeableness (Logicals in Quintax terms) is their emphasis on rational thinking and logical analysis in deciding matters. Those with higher agreeableness (Quintax Personables) are characterised by a more intuition-based approach to evaluating situations and decisions.
This draws in part on Jungian conceptions of Thinking and Feeling respectively, although these don’t have a full overlap with ‘Big 5’ Agreeableness. The distinction between the analytical, principled approach of the Logicals and the more people-centred style of the Personables provides a basis for understanding the differences in their behaviour about making and communicating decisions. Crucially it provides a basis for exploring both the potentially helpful and the potentially limiting aspects of each of these styles in the work context.
The strengths of Personables (high Agreeableness) include:
• consideration of the impact of actions and decisions on others
• a tendency to factor in (albeit at a fuzzy logic level) consequences or implications that may not occur to Logicals
• willingness to cooperate, help and support people
The downsides for Personables can be:
• struggling to fully articulate the reasoning behind their reactions or decisions
• a tendency to go along with things they disagree with to avoid ‘rocking the boat’
• difficulty in saying ‘No’ when asked to do more than their fair share
For Logicals (low Agreeableness) their strengths are:
• application of rational analysis in evaluating situations and solving problems
• willingness to air their disagreements on matters so that ideas are tested fully
• principled approach to treating people equally and fairly
Downsides for Logicals can include:
• lack of tolerance, tact and sensitivity when dealing with others
• a degree of independence to the point of being obstinate and obstructive
• a tendency to seek control and dominate as a way of pushing their ideas through
Finding the balance in niceness
This approach moves us away from the simplistic description of ‘high agreeable’ as ’nice’ and, by implication, ‘low agreeable’ as ‘not nice’. The word ‘nice’ imports a strong value judgement in relation to alternative behaviours – they become ‘nasty’ or ‘bad’.
In Quintax we have provided a more balanced view of the pros and cons of both Personable and Logical styles and their implications for behaviour at work. For example, Personables are more likely to cooperate and fit in with the team, but may be reluctant to voice genuine concerns over team decisions. Logicals may be effective at analysing situations rationally may fail to factor in the impact of their recommendations on people. Personable leaders are more likely to adopt a transformational style, while Logical leaders are more likely to adopt a transactional style.
Of course, just because we can’t simultaneously show both Logical and Personable behaviour at any one time, doesn’t mean that we can’t engage in each at different times. Indeed, when it comes to making decisions that can affect people (and what decisions don’t?) it is sensible to propose that we should use both logic to analyse the situation and arrive at a well-argued position and in addition listen to our own or others’ intuitions about the potential impact of a decision on people and cultures. They may not find it easy, but Logicals need to anticipate personal reactions if they are to have a full analysis of how things will be influenced by a proposal or change.
What personality theory tells us is that each of us has a bias to one approach or the other. Understanding this, and knowing our own starting position (and ideally that of our colleagues) is the basis for a more effective approach to making and communicating our decisions. It may be nice to be ‘nice’ – although it sounds rather ‘icky’ to us Logicals – but this label carries the danger of demonising other perfectly valid approaches to work.
Want to read more?
Catch up on the Goldsmiths study here:
Is being nice always a good thing?:
And for a more rigorous, academic approach to Agreeableness and its relationship to success and income particularly: