Being Nice Pays Off: Why Nice Leaders Are More Effective

Woman leader in front of team
February 14 , 2022  |  By Emilija Sarma, Andrew Blake, Oleg Petrenko

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If you think about what kind of a leader you’d like to be, ‘nice’ might not be the first word that comes to mind.  Being nice isn’t usually associated with being a strong or an effective leader. 

In “Let’s Agree About Nice Leaders,” Andrew Blake, Vivian H. Luu, Oleg Petrenko, William Gardner, Kristie N.J. Moergen, and Maira E. Ezerins offer a counter-narrative to the long-standing assumption that being nice or agreeable is somehow detrimental to effective leadership. In this article, the researchers seek to “investigate the ambiguous relationship between the personality trait agreeableness and leadership” by examining a corpus of eighty-nine manuscripts on leadership and agreeableness.

Their research examines the multiple ways that being nice can affect leadership processes and outcomes. Their work also serves as an overview of the many gaps in scholarship on agreeableness and leadership. Research on leadership and agreeableness is rather scarce as compared to the attention given to other aspects of leadership, mostly because of the prevailing stereotype that agreeableness equals weakness.

But Blake, Luu, Petrenko, et al. show that being nice should be on everyone’s radar as far as leadership research is concerned. Their study shows that agreeableness is essential to effective leadership and thus the relationship between the two deserves more emphasis. The authors’ research addresses the impact of agreeableness on leadership emergence, leadership effectiveness, and whether it functions differently depending on the gender of the leader.

The Effect of Agreeableness on Leadership Emergence and Effectiveness

Counter to what people have traditionally assumed about niceness, this study posits that agreeable leaders can “build more effective relationships with their subordinates and create cohesive teams that are more likely to perform well.” This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever worked for someone else, as it is arguably a lot easier to work for someone who’s nice than someone who isn’t. 

But what does it mean exactly to be a nice (i.e., highly agreeable) leader?Though there may be several interpretations of "agreeableness" in the context of leadership, this student defines it as "the motivation to maintain smooth interpersonal relationships."

Working with this definition, their study presumed that because agreeable people “tend toward cooperation and collaboration rather than conflict,” and are both “trustworthy and trusting,” agreeableness would have a positive impact on leadership emergence. Leadership emergence is defined as “the degree to which an individual is considered a leader based on his or her leadership characteristics regardless of formal position (e.g., leadership style, leadership behavior, etc.).” 

Since agreeable individuals in a group setting tend to be more “cooperative … friendly, and caring,” this would help them emerge as leaders because they would be well liked by other group members. Additionally, the authors thought that non-executives would benefit more from being agreeable leaders than executives. However, although their findings supported the idea that agreeableness will positively impact leadership emergence, both non-executives and executives alike benefited from being agreeable leaders. That said, more research on the interaction between the leadership level and agreeableness is warranted, since the authors found only two studies that looked at “leader agreeableness and leadership emergence on the executive level.”

Blake, Luu, Petrenko, et al. also assumed that agreeableness would make for more effective leadership because agreeable leaders would “foster cooperation and trust among followers,” and “facilitate goal attainment.” Leadership effectiveness is defined as “the individual follower, leader, group, team, or organizational outcomes directly attributable to the leader” and it is related to the degree to which a leader “can influence individual, group, team, or organizational task performance, affective/relational criteria (e.g., motivation or satisfaction), or both.” 

Unlike in the case of leadership emergence, there was a difference between non-executives and executives when it comes to leadership effectiveness. Leaders at the non-executive level were found to benefit more from agreeableness than executives in terms of their effectiveness.

Overall, being nice was found to have a positive impact on both leadership emergence and effectiveness—being nice helped individuals to be perceived and accepted as leaders, and they were also seen as more effective.

Collectivistic VS. Individualistic Cultures

The relationship between agreeableness and leadership also emerged as culture dependent. The connection between agreeableness and both leadership emergence and effectiveness was found to be stronger in collectivistic rather than individualistic cultures. While individualistic societies focus on task completion “sometimes at the expense of relationships,” collectivistic societies “prioritize harmonious relationships with group members.” 

Agreeable leaders in collectivistic cultures are likely to positively affect team cohesion, confidence, and performance. Based on this finding, the authors suggest that scholars consider “cross-cultural samples” in future research to further explore these differences between cultures. What’s more, these findings have implications for current training programs “designed to promote diversity in business leadership,” which underscores the necessity for more research in this area.

Should All Leaders Strive to Be Nice?

Blake, Luu, Petrenko, et al. assumed that gender perceptions and stereotypes would also impact the relationship between agreeableness and leadership in that it would affect “the perception of women as leaders.” Women are underrepresented in leadership positions, particularly at the executive level of organizations. Research accounts for this underrepresentation by factoring in the penalties women unfairly suffer for not possessing what are traditionally assumed to be masculine attributes of leadership roles. 

The authors thought that since previous research had shown that “women are more agreeable on average than their male counterparts” and because agreeableness is primarily associated with stereotypically feminine behaviors, this would “increase the degree of perceivable feminine attributes among females (relative to males)” and lower the chances for women “to be perceived as leaders.” 

Interestingly, the authors did not find support for this assumption. They propose that shifting beliefs about gender equality could have something to do with this, as the “masculine construal of leadership” is becoming less popular. The authors underline that gender is still an important factor that must be considered “when examining the team dynamics,” but since “interpersonal skills have become more critical for leadership,” agreeableness is equally as important for men and women leaders.

There Is a Lot More Work to Be Done

There is a wealth of knowledge on agreeableness and leadership waiting to be uncovered by future research. Blake, Luu, Petrenko, et al. hope that their findings will serve as a starting point for leadership scholars. Some areas that warrant more exploration are key leadership constructs and outcomes like “multiple popular leadership styles,” and “authentic leadership.” Some concepts like “the relationship between leadership development … and agreeableness,” have not been explored at all. Additionally, there is no research on “the outcomes of agreeableness for leaders themselves.” 

The authors also uncovered “a theoretical issue with the conceptualization of agreeableness,” namely that current scholarship focuses on high levels of agreeableness and how those “influence leadership emergence and effectiveness.” Meanwhile, current research seems to ignore the other side of the coin—disagreeableness. Blake, Luu, Petrenko, et al. propose that it’s necessary to understand how disagreeableness “impacts leadership processes” just as much as agreeableness, especially if we are to have a more cohesive and complete picture of leadership.

To address these gaps in scholarship on leadership and agreeableness/disagreeableness, future researchers should “adopt multi-source, multi-wave, and multi-method designs rather than relying on cross-sectional designs” that rely heavily on surveys.

Being Nice Pays Off

Being nice may have traditionally been seen as having no place in leadership, but this study offers strong evidence “for the argument that nice leaders do not finish last but are rather effective both in non-executive and executive roles.” This is significant for leaders who may be trying to “suppress some of the tendencies associated with agreeableness” out of fear of appearing “weak and soft.” However, there is no need to avoid being nice for fear of being perceived as an ineffective leader, no matter the person’s gender or leadership level. 

In sum, agreeable leaders were found to be more likely to put others’ needs first and focus on other people’s well-being, which positively affected their relationships with others. These types of leaders were also likely to be perceived as ethical by group members because they are “more likely to display and promote ‘normatively appropriate conduct’ to their followers.” Agreeable leaders are also more inclined both to use integrating and avoidant conflict resolution tactics and to forgo dominating tactics. Additionally, they are likely to be team players, though the authors underline that more research on agreeable leaders and their effect on team dynamics is necessary. 

Although there is plenty more research needed on agreeableness in leadership, what we do know for certain is that “leaders no longer need to choose to be ‘effective’ or ‘nice,’ but rather both can be achieved simultaneously.”

Oleg V. Petrenko is an Assistant Professor in the Strategy, Entrepreneurship, Venture and Innovation Department at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. He received his PhD from Oklahoma State University. His research broadly focuses on the micro-foundations of strategy in large corporation and new venture contexts. Specifically, he is interested in examining the psychology of executives and entrepreneurs and how it impacts strategic decision-making and firm performance. 

Emilija SarmaEmīlija Sarma is a Fulbright Scholar from Latvia and a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies (CLCS) at the University of Arkansas. Emīlija is the recipient of the CLCS Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship and the Vance and Mary Celestia Parler Randolph Fellowship in English. Her research focuses on gender studies, intersectional feminism, pop culture, and young adult literature. Emīlija is passionate about international exchange in higher education and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. She has previously taught composition and technical writing for the English department at the U of A and worked for International Recruitment before transitioning to the role of Program Coordinator for the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Orientation online. She currently works as the MFA program assistant at the U of A School of Art.