I am a really nice person. To clarify, I’m not your typical smile-in-the-hallway and how’s-it-going-at-the-coffeepot nice—I’m the real deal. I can’t even credit my Southern roots for my overly gregarious attitude: Coworkers from Birmingham to Boston have actually doubted my sincerity because “no one could possibly be that nice.” I truly am. But I’ve often wondered: In order to climb the corporate ladder, do you have to check your pleasant nature at the corner-office door? Should I cut the sweet talk and turn cutthroat? Or can I be taken seriously with a smile? Here’s what I uncovered.
Smiling has powerful results. Want to make a lasting impression? Duke researchers showed that the reward center of the brain activates when subjects recalled the names of smiling people (which would come in handy when your boss is deciding who gets a raise). Grins can inspire teamwork, too. A British study concluded that listeners with positive body language, such as nodding and smiling, were more likely to cause speakers to share their own opinions and observations. Looking for a way to go the extra mile on an important project? Members of a Russian weight-lifting team were able in increase their repetitions when they flashed their pearly whites.
Workplace stress isn’t cheap. The American Institute of Stress estimates upwards of a $300 billion loss per year due to job-related stress. Granted that stress comes in many forms from 9 to 5, but being ultracompetitive with your coworkers or unrelenting in negotiations would definitely increase your stress level and those around you.
Kind leaders improve the workplace. As a manager, how do you create an environment that promotes cooperation, self-esteem, and organizational commitment? You guessed it—several studies have shown that selflessness wins out over selfishness. An added boon: Leaders who appear self-sacrificing (i.e., put the good of the company before their own personal needs), actually come off as more charismatic and effective to their followers through their generosity, gratitude, and fairness.
Altruism can translate as lack of ambition. Researchers showed in a 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that participants were perceived as more dominant and power-seeking when they were willing to help themselves at the expense others. The study then suggested that in a time of conflict these ruthless subjects were more valued as leaders, as they were elected to act as the group representative for a mock debate.
Nastiness carries currency. A 2012 study published in the same journal found that regardless of occupational status, job responsibility, or sex, disagreeable people historically earned more than their agreeable counterparts.
I’m sure I just scratched the surface on research supporting either side. But during my digging, one case in particular caught my eye: A 2011 Michigan State study showed that fake smiles can produce negative effects in the workplace like lower productively and employee unhappiness and stress. Hmm. If the key to success is being genuine, then sign me up. Maybe the earnings study will prove true and being nice won’t land me the nicest paycheck, but I’ll be healthier, happier, and truer to myself on payday — and I’d rather take that to the bank.