Can managers be both agreeable and successful?

I recently read an article in the Sunday Times entitled “Why nice bosses find it so hard to succeed in business.” The article was written by Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London, and his point was that agreeableness is a weakness in business.

I was so incensed that such a learned person should write such rubbish that I thought it important to present the opposite view. But before doing so, let’s look at Adrian Furnham’s argument.

Furnham bases his assertion on research (the source of which he doesn’t identify) which was based on a personality dimension they called agreeableness. Agreeable people are defined as being forgiving, trusting and straightforward. They are also generous, tolerant, altruistic and warm-hearted. They make loyal friends and good neighbours. Disagreeable people on the other hand are suspicious and sceptical, demanding and egocentric; impatient and intolerant, self-confident and headstrong, competitive and antagonistic; assertive and argumentative. They are often described as bastards.

According to Furnham; “The research is clear: the higher you score on agreeableness the less likely you are to succeed as a business leader.”

When I was appointed to my first management position I remember one of our Directors giving me a tip – “Now that you are a manager it would be a good idea if you distanced yourself a little from your people”. The advice came from someone that I both liked and respected, but it was completely at odds with my own view that, now that I was a manager, I needed to get even closer to my people. We couldn’t both be right!

The argument put by Furnham is that if you are friends with an employee, you may find it harder to give them honest feedback in an appraisal, or to put them in the correct position in the queue if redundancies were necessary. And it is here where I believe Furnham and his research colleagues are going wrong – they are confusing agreeableness with weakness.

Consider the example of an appraisal in more detail. Suppose you have to give two people an appraisal; one you know well and are friendly with, the other you know less well. If you gave an overly positive appraisal to your friend and an honest appraisal to the other person, then, a) you are by definition a weak manager, and b) by failing to be honest, you are not much of a friend either. Moreover, acting in this way is likely to exacerbate the situation as the person you were honest with will eventually come to realise that you are giving the other preferential treatment. The situation will therefore deteriorate further.

On the other hand, if you were more of a “bastard”, to quote Professor Furnham, you may not be a good manager but the situation would not worsen as you would be likely to treat both people equally badly.

It is therefore not surprising that researchers found a correlation between agreeableness and poor management as it is clear that to be an even-handed poor manager is better than to be a poor manager and weak.

But this does not mean that you cannot be both a good manager and agreeable at the same time.

In fact I would go further. I would argue that history shows us that best managers are also close to their people. In the famous book by Jim Collins “Good to Great”, Collins shows how most of the companies that were exceptional performers had Chief Executives who had been with the company for 20 years or more and had achieved their success by “taking their people with them”. In Southwest Airlines, arguably the most successful airline in the world, Herb Kelleher, in his own words, built a company “based on love”. Even back at the beginning of the 20th Century, Konosuke Matsushita founded the Panasonic corporation with a mission based, not on achieving excellence in the field of electronics, but on eradicating poverty and, such was the loyalty and devotion of his employees that, when he was interned during the war, his workers marched on the prison and demanded his release.

The irony is that if you are a poor manager, Professor Furnham’s advice would appear to be sound, being disagreeable rather than agreeable will probably make you a better poor manager. But if you are a good manager and aspire to be better manager, getting closer to your people and acting in an agreeable way will improve your performance provided you have the strength of character to draw a distinction between business and friendship.

Click here to add your comments to the related blog item or here to read the article by Professor Furnham.

About the Author
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.