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Do Nice Employees Finish Last?

It’s an age-old question that comes in many forms. Do nice employees finish last? Is it better to be feared than loved? Does the squeaky wheel really get the grease? As much as the business world is portrayed as cold and heartless, it is not necessarily true that nice employees finish last, or that success requires being a bit of a jerk.

Rather than being one dimensional–either a terror or a softie–it is advantageous to have a tough streak that can be applied when necessary. This requires being able to read situations correctly, including one’s own strengths and weaknesses, the nature of the organization, and the demands of the problem or opportunity at hand.

Trump or Buffett?

Looking at role models among successful people can provide conflicting answers to the question of whether nice employees finish last. Donald Trump, who is arguably the world’s most high-profile boss, seems to pride himself on exhibiting boorish behavior. This is the animal-kingdom approach to leadership, where being a leader means being able to periodically assert your dominance over the rest of the pack, which in turn keeps the pack in line and amplifies the leader’s power.

However, before anyone assumes this is the sole blueprint for success, they should consider another example. Not the world’s most high-profile boss, but simply the world’s richest man: Warren Buffett. Since money is the business world’s means of keeping score, Buffett’s fortune, earned at the helm of Berkshire Hathaway, would put him at the top of the heap. In contrast to Trump, Buffett is known for his folksy charm, proving that there is more than one path to success.

What to Consider Before Playing Hardball

As for which role model today’s employees should follow, the answer might be to draw from both. Certainly, being easygoing and accommodating all the time would probably result in a person being overlooked and bypassed for opportunities, but the Attila-the-Hun act can lead to spectacular career flameouts. To help determine the right approach, here are five questions an employee should think about before deciding to play hardball.

As a general rule, keep in mind that a Harvard Business School survey found that people would rather work with a lovable fool than a competent jerk. Whether this is right or wrong is immaterial–it’s simply the way people are. The competent jerk’s skills may be devalued just because other employees don’t want input or involvement from someone they can’t stand.

The Winning Formula
For those keeping score–and in the corporate world, just about everybody is–Warren Buffett is currently considered the world’s richest man, while Donald Trump failed to crack the top 100. Still, Trump’s ruthless approach has made him a billionaire in his own right, proving that there is more than one path to a successful career.

For most people, the winning formula might be to blend a little of both approaches. It’s good to show ambition, willingness to make tough decisions, and the ability to stand one’s ground when necessary. At the same time, wrapping that iron fist in a velvet glove of good manners and teamwork will make an employee more likely to be sought out for opportunities.

Publish date: June 11, 2008