Does being nice hurt your career?

We’ve all heard the saying, “Nice guys finish last,” but is it true? While past research tended to back up the adage, Rong Su, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, decided to retest the concept. She and her fellow researchers discovered there is a nuance to niceness that impacts your success.

“The assumption is, if you’re being nice, you’re not competitive, you do not perform well, and you do not advance in your career as much as others,” says Su. “We set out to challenge this assumption.”

The Nuances of Niceness

Su found that there are different forms of niceness. For example, nice can refer to someone who’s compliant to others and not competitive or assertive. This is a negative type of niceness, and it can harm your career progression.

“This personality trait is someone who is kind, empathetic, and always complying to the requests of others,” says Su. “They’re also conflict avoidant in meetings. This type of niceness is not helpful.”

But niceness also can mean being socially motivated, which is having a strong desire to help others.

“We all have colleagues who are willing to help and step in when a coworker is sick,” says Su. “They volunteer and want to benefit others through their work. We found having a strong prosocial motivation has benefits across the board for a lot of different types of outcomes for employees.”

The Benefits

According to Su’s research, people who have a high prosocial motivation (a social science term, coined to mean the opposite of “antisocial”) are generally happier, they have high psychological well-being, and, most importantly, they have stronger job performance.

“They have stronger career success in terms of being evaluated,” she says. “And they are considered to have more leadership potential by their peers and coworkers, giving them a greater chance to advance to management positions.”

However, being prosocially motivated does not mean that you must be altruistic, sacrificing your own workflow or goals to help. “They don’t have to help at the cost of completing their own job tasks because that would cause their performance to decrease,” says Su.

Building Prosocial Traits

Being prosocially motivated isn’t necessarily something you’re born with, says Su. “Some people do have a stronger tendency naturally, but social motivation can be embedded in a work context with specific target beneficiaries,” she says. “For example, you can be motivated to benefit clients or benefit coworkers. These types of social motivation have the strongest positive impact on someone’s job performance, compared to the global level prosocial motivation where someone wants to be helpful in general.”

While it can be a personality tendency, Su says it also can be learned and encouraged at an organizational level. For example, companies can look for the trait when screening job candidates. Su suggests asking scenario-based questions during an interview that reveal the person’s values and how they see themselves fitting in at their organization. For example, “Tell me about a situation when a coworker needed help. What did you do, and how did you balance your own workload?”

Prosocial motivation can be built into a culture. “It takes a lot of like policies and systems,” says Su. “A company that wants to be overly competitive endorses individual achievement instead of prosocial behavior. In this case, they can reevaluate their values.”

Another way to build social motivation into a culture is to bake it into performance reviews, calling out times when an employee helped a coworker or customer. “A lot of companies evaluate employees’ productivity and performance based on individual things like how many sales calls they made,” says Su. “They can also build into the evaluation someone’s social behavior, such as to what extent this person contributes to the team above and beyond their individual accomplishments and contributions. Giving feedback on how to change and meet those goals is another way to encourage motivation.”

Su’s study found that gender doesn’t impact the positive benefits of being prosocially motivated. “You often hear stories about [how] women are expected to be prosocial, and if you’re prosocial people are not going to appreciate you,” she says. “We found that men and women benefit equally from the trait. Men and women can leverage the positive performance benefits and the benefits for career success by being prosocial.”