Workers with traits like cooperation, humility, and altruism contribute to team performance more than those with a shark-like demeanor, finds a recent study from researchers at University College London, entitled “Kill chaos with kindness.” That follows decades of assumption that competitiveness and bloodthirst at work is the key to making it to the C-suite, and the pandemic may explain the shift.
A University of California–Berkeley study from 2018 found that agreeableness (being a “yes man”) could actually negatively impact one’s career, and a 2017 University of Copenhagen study found agreeableness could even reduce lifetime earnings. But since the early days of lockdown laid bare the amount of stress and obligation most workers are saddled with, easygoing, slow-to-anger workers have proved to be managers’ favorites.
The UCL study observed nearly 3,700 workers collaborating on group tasks over a 10-year period, keeping tabs on each worker’s Big Five personality traits: Neuroticism, extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. As anticipated, neuroticism brings the whole team down, whereas the next three—extraversion, openness, and conscientiousness—raise everyone up.
While the first four of those traits have been consistently known to improve morale and productivity prior to the pandemic, agreeableness had “a non-significant and highly variable” relationship with performance, and agreeable workers were deemed either “not helpful or potentially distracting,” the authors wrote. But “in this new world,” being a get-along guy (or gal) at work is vital.
Similar research backs up UCL’s findings. Last year, a study from the University of Arkansas found that not only is agreeability a must-have for career success today, it’s also an asset for success in every area of life. “We know this is important—perhaps now more than ever—because agreeableness is the personality trait primarily concerned with helping people and building positive relationships, which is not lost on organizational leaders,” the Arkansas authors wrote.
Why agreeableness wasn’t always an asset
In the past, researchers deemed cooperativeness “mostly irrelevant” to productivity, study co-author and London School of Economics professor Randall Peterson told CNBC this week. That may be because workers who don’t cause any rifts can easily fly under the radar, while more cunning or intense workers tend to be hard to ignore. Even worse: Some agreeable people may be passive, allowing others to take credit for their work or take big opportunities, even if they don’t deserve them.
Agreeableness morphing into passivity or withholding is the opposite of what workers, especially managers, want. In fact, the desire to make others happy can sometimes result in leaders avoiding critical feedback entirely, Tessa West, an NYU psychology professor and author of Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them, told Fortune earlier this month. “Niceness, when it leads to an avoidance of the necessary critical feedback people need to grow—the specific stuff—that’s when it becomes a problem,” she said.
“The basic truth is if you have one competitive person and one cooperative person, the competitive person will always win,” Peterson said. “However, two cooperative people will outperform two competitive people every time, [and managers] are endorsing cooperation and agreeableness much more than they did pre-pandemic.”
Perhaps agreeableness is getting such a boost because interpersonal issues have never been more important in today’s workplace. Issues like the setting the parameters of flexible work, managing connection and synergy among a distributed team, and relearning the work-life balance have all been top of mind for managers, which goes a long way towards explaining why easygoing workers have become clear favorites.
“The pandemic really showed people the value in being [an] even-tempered, cooperative type rather than the star who wants to put themselves in front of everybody,” Peterson told CNBC. “The world we live in is increasingly reminding us that the star system is not going to work for us anymore.”
That doesn’t mean recognizing employees for a job well done is no longer important; quite the opposite. Celebrating successes (even without gold stars) is key to reducing turnover—and could save companies millions of dollars in replacing high-performers over the long run.
Over 30% of workers with bosses that regularly recognize their major life events or work milestones said they plan to stay at their current company for at least five more years, a 2022 Gallup and Workhuman report found. That’s an agreeable outcome for everyone.