Do Nice Guys (and Gals) Finish Last?

Over the past year I feel I have been co-opted (or perhaps co-opted myself) to be a “cultural relativism” iconoclast intent on examining many of the business models taught here for their resilience under the disintegrating hammer of US-centric assumptions. That “allowing for cultural differences…” sort of perfunctory acknowledgement by the researchers who create these models is perhaps perfunctory precisely because a more genuine engagement with the importance of how things are done differently elsewhere in the world, might otherwise thoroughly destroy the published (in HBR, no less!) triumph of such researchers’ models. This idol of glitter and gold would perhaps crumble if one were to direct attention to the culturally relativistic clay feet on which it has been erected, as is my intention in commenting on Barbara Tannen’s “The Power of Talk: Who gets Heard and Why.”

“The Idea at Work” précis which helpfully summarizes her argument in the form of useful advice points to a list of Donts (with the associated unintended consequences for those who engage in such career-assassinating behavior): don’t share credit, don’t act modest, don’t ask questions, don’t apologize, don’t “sandwich” negative feedback with positive reinforcement buffer, and some Dos: do aggressively challenge others’ ideas, do toot your achievement horn with your superiors, and do bluntly give orders to those below you.  Her paper (and complementary video) operates on a simple binary, one which is familiar to all of us if only as a simplistic stereotype of the aggressive Gordon Gekko man and the “feelgoody” Pollyanna woman. Women, in particular are victims of their innate feminine “niceness” that apparently emerges from their childhood instincts to “talk” while their masculine counterparts learn assertiveness from childhood instincts to “fight.” Apart from the benevolent sexism inherent in such positioning, it will no doubt come as a surprise to my daughters whose inherent instinct is to fight one another over toys (or primacy or whatever), that my wife and I are trying to socialize out of them by encouraging them in more civilized behavior and attitudes.

On the contrary, I propose that we view the evidence of her anecdotally, confirmation-biased, data through a different lens, one that doesn’t view men (or masculinity) as rude, self-promoting and selfish, or women (or femininity) as weak, unassertive and conflict-averse. The same objectives of being credited for ones work, being confident in one’s abilities (and enjoying that same confidence from one’s colleagues), and being clear in one’s feedback can also be achieved by BOTH men and women through friendly, civil and self-confident behavior. Yet, especially in North America, self-confidence is often considered an external attribute that if one does not already have, can be remedied by enrolling in “Assertiveness Training” courses in which machismo (rather than masculinity) is beaten into poor Pollyanna souls on their journey up the corporate ladder.

Interestingly enough, these sexist stereotypes of both women and men gave rise to a backlash in popular culture in the 1970s but were never properly explored for their specious assumptions. Thus, Carol Gilligan, Camille Paglia, and later John Gray (of Men are from Mars… fame) seemed to tacitly imply that on some level if women were to shed their “submissiveness” the only option open to them was to engage in chest-pounding machismo in all its glory. Consider an example from the popular culture: the popular entertainment of that period in the stand-up comedy of Eddie Murphy in particular. This feminine=submissive and masculine=aggressive underwent an interesting transformation in the sphere of sexual orientation, where the butch-and-femme or pitcher-and-catcher slang assigning sexual roles for homosexual women and men respectively began to be associated with this aggressive vs. submissive behavior.  It is also about this time that ethnic stereotypes began to enter the popular discourse associating aggressive behavior with African Americans, and submissive behavior with Asians (think of TV & Media of the time like A-Team, Shaft, etc). These stereotypes existed long before featuring in the pop-psychology books, in entertainment (including pornography), and sometimes in scholarly research from the 1980s onwards, which may have been responsible for their entrenchment in the North American popular imagination. However, with the increasing crossover of cultures through the economic development (e.g. Japan, Korea, India, China etc) Western researchers have had ample opportunity to examine how other cultures do things differently, and if these differences may be a useful opportunity for us North Americans to revisit some of our most deeply held sub-conscious assumptions about preferred social behavior.

Tannen mentions an Air Florida airline crash, whose black box recordings indicate that the co-pilot did discreetly indicate a few times of possible danger to his captain, but was ignored. Tannen’s response to a Japanese student who pointed out that perhaps a good learning objective from the Air Florida disaster would be to “train pilots to pick up on hints” is delivered in ringingly reprimanding tines that “people in powerful positions are likely to reward styles similar to their own” which is a not-so-subtle assertion that in the US (which is assumed to be the pinnacle of business power) if one were to get ahead, one had better ape the typical obnoxiousness of typically male business leaders. Really? Consider an interesting counter-example. In 1989 following the burst of Japan’s economic bubble, Lawrence Summers visited Japan on numerous occasions where he hectored away his opinions at Japan’s government and entire financial industry. They politely listened but essentially ignored him, for his whole personality and behavior was perceived to be immature, ignorant and fundamentally uncivilized—a conclusion many of the Harvard faculty came to over a decade later. Howell Raines in the New York Times debacle is equally instructive.

In many of the cultures of Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe substantial emphasis has been placed on modesty in describing oneself, and courtesy to others often through a sophisticated use of language to convey one’s meaning without giving offence, and thus to participate in society as a mature individual. Such people are neither considered aggressive boors, nor are they unassertive doormats: one only has to look at respected leaders to have emerged in history from Julius Caesar, Jesus, Ashoka, and Tokugawa Ieyasu to Nelson Maldela, John Paul II, Meg Whitman and Aung San Suu Kyi. Their self-confidence was an internal attribute and achieved through learning, experience and self-actualization, not through an assertiveness training seminar that timid souls might hasten to join to ease their discombobulating dismay arising out of reading Tannen’s article.


Tannen, Deborah. “The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why.” Harvard Business Review OnPoint. Product Number: 9977.

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