By Martha Quillen
Do nice guys finish first? Or last?
That’s a classic question, but what I want to know is not where nice guys finish (since they likely finish in different places), but what merits the designation “nice.” In our era, citizens tend to either praise political VIPs or call them stupid – and sometimes even accuse them of criminal activities – whether the conversation is about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, or the mayor of Salida.
Clearly, one side’s good guy is another’s villain. Nice apparently means affable, and today many Americans prefer to have tough, commanding types in charge of things.
In a 2015 Atlantic article entitled Why It Pays To Be A Jerk, Jeffrey Useem examines the issue of where nice guys finish, mostly from a business perspective, but not completely (since he also addresses the psychology of apes and teens).
The gist of Useem’s approach is to determine whether intimidation and aggression are useful management tools. The majority of experts say no. But Americans are of two minds on the matter: those who believe that treating people well encourages loyalty and good work; and those who think movers and shakers like Steve Jobs get ahead because they are difficult, self-centered and relentless.
Useem, however, is particularly tantalized by the conclusions of Adam Grant, a Wharton professor, who maintains a more nuanced view by making a differentiation between aggression and aggressiveness. Grant concludes “nice guys and gals really do finish last,” because employees need to be pushed out of their comfort zone. But he maintains that acting aggressively and feeling aggressive are two different things, and controlled aggression can urge people forward.
(That may be true, but I sure don’t want to work for someone who acts aggressively. Oh, wait, I already have. In fact, I once worked for a restaurant owner who killed a customer who refused to take off his cowboy hat.)
Useem likewise cites Robert Faris, a sociologist at UC Davis, who points out that human leaders are no longer great apes who can establish dominance by bashing heads. Today aggression and leadership are far more complex and include “reputational aggression – aka vicious gossip, or even verbal abuse.” Faris uses teens as an example of such aggression, and maintains that high-status kids seldom target low-status kids. Instead, adolescents generally target kids near them on the social ladder, and once kids climb to the top, their “aggression ceases almost completely.” At that point, “these people have the luxury of being kind” because “their social positions are no longer in jeopardy.”
But all of this passionless musing about whether aggression is a useful tool or not takes on another spin when studied from the perspective of victims. In recent weeks, sexual misconduct has been making headlines, but the latest scandal isn’t about romantic interludes or illicit affairs. It’s about power and privilege, who’s who, who’s not, and who matters in the workplace.
This time around, popular pundit Bill O’Reilly was in the news after Fox News settled a sexual harassment suit brought against him. The settlement inspired activists to launch an advertising boycott of the O’Reilly Factor, and prompted President Trump to dismiss O’Reilly’s offenses as locker room talk.
This episode wasn’t novel for Fox News. Roger Ailes, the organization’s development guru and long-time CEO, left Fox after facing similar accusations in 2016. And those weren’t the first harassment accusations against Ailes or O’Reilly. According to The New York Times, Fox had settled five other accusations of inappropriate behavior against O’Reilly, amounting to about $13 million.
And Gabriel Sherman, author of The Loudest Voice in the Room, an Ailes biography, revealed that Ailes was known to use threats, name-calling and profanity to intimidate both male and female employees before he started at Fox two decades ago, and was regarded as bellicose and difficult from the beginning.
Sherman thereby concluded, “While his volcanic temper, paranoia and ruthlessness were part of what made Ailes among the best television producers and political operatives of his generation, those same attributes prevented him from functioning in a corporate environment.”
Sherman’s assumption that Ailes’ malevolence contributed to his success is disturbing, but not surprising, which may be what underlies our current angst.
In our presumably modern society, we still regard bullying, dominance and scorn as natural components of power and success, and that undoubtedly contributes to our current top-heavy, dictatorial, rank-obsessed management model, which renders too many of our corporations and public systems bureaucratic, ineffective and sometimes even toxic.
PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, identifies poor teacher treatment as one of the primary reasons that American schools lag way behind some of their European and Asian counterparts. According to PISA, teachers in the United States lack prestige, have no autonomy, suffer from low morale and are unfairly criticized by principals who frequently blame teachers for things caused by larger systemic problems.
In America, far too many banner headlines have been dedicated to CEOs and bankers who have proven themselves to be unscrupulous, incompetent, overindulged, and overcompensated at the expense of the workers below them, their customers and our society.
In recent decades, our society has become increasingly stratified and discordant. In politics, boardrooms and life in general, those who make it to the top get to lead. But in recent years, fewer people seem inclined to follow. Instead, citizens are fractious, divided and defiant.
In cities across America and around the world, people are crying out against business and politics as usual; they’re criticizing corporations, governments, corrupt leaders, merciless dictators, crooked cops, immigrants – and their neighbors.
So what do you do when the nightly news is horrific? Your town is feuding? Your boss is a jerk? And nobody seems to agree on who or what is responsible?
Some people maintain that the internet is at fault for all of this upheaval. Or Facebook. Or Democrats and Republicans. Or warfare, weapons, poverty, addiction, greed, affluenza and inequality.
But what if our biggest problem has less to do with those factors than with how badly people are treating one another?
The phone rings or a pop-up appears on your computer saying: “This is your Google representative …” “This is the IRS …” “Hello, this is Microsoft …” Except it isn’t. Fraud is now endemic on the phone and over the internet. Hackers are disrupting nations, industries and ordinary people’s affairs. Con artists are illegally intervening in elections, or pretending to be your grandson or the lottery, and all you need to do is send them a money order ….
Today it only stands to reason that people are upset with the status quo, but supporting aggression isn’t the solution. On the contrary, disregarding the needs, rights and feelings of others is the problem, and it’s one of America’s biggest – whether the perpetrators are shooting at, cheating or simply harassing people.
Adam Grant’s defense of aggression is disputable, but he’s likely right about employees needing critical appraisal and high expectations in order to keep striving and improving. Yet criticism and great expectations shouldn’t just be for subordinates, because those at the top are the people we’re supposed to look up to, and nobody should get away with harassment for decades, including O’Reilly, Ailes and our president.
Martha Quillen only looks down at the world from places high above Salida.