When it’s bad to be ‘too good’: Study shows why nice guys may finish last at work

Consider yourself one of the do-gooders in your office? New research explains why being the most helpful person at work can also make you the most hated.

GUELPH, Ontario — Being too good may be bad for you, especially in the office, a new study finds.

Agreeable, helpful people are found to often draw negative attention, even hatred, from others. Hating on do-gooders goes back to the dawn of civilization, but is most often seen today in competitive workplaces where people are vying for the same sale or promotion.

Behavioral scientists at the University of Guelph wanted to understand the phenomenon. “Why are people built in such a way that they will react against that overly generous person, and want to bring down the person who appears too good?” asks study author Pat Barclay, a psychology professor with the university, in a university release.

“Most of the time we like the cooperators, the good guys,” he says. “We like it when the bad guys get their comeuppance, and when non-cooperators are punished.”

But let competition enter the picture, and the sentiment changes drastically.

“Some of the time, cooperators are the ones who get punished,” explains Barclay. “People will hate on the really good guys. This pattern has been found in every culture in which it has been looked at.”

What causes this intense dislike of do-gooders? Barclay sought to unpack the psychological reasons behind the behavior.

Researchers designed a game that would test how cooperative people fare in competitive versus noncompetitive situations. Participants in the experiment were placed in one of two test environments.

Half of the participants played a cooperation game. Participants played in groups of four, and were given money at the beginning of each round that they could either keep or donate. Donated money went into a communal pot, where it was doubled and then divided evenly among the four players.

When a player donated all of his or her money, the whole group doubled their money. But when the amounts varied with some donating more and some less, the more generous person lost the most. All players had a chance to punish other players anonymously after each round. For the cost of $1, a player could reduce another player’s earnings by $3. Although the person being punished lost the most money, it also cost the person doing the punishing.

The other half of participants were placed in groups of five players. The fifth player was an observer during the donation part of the game who would then choose one player with whom to play a two-person bonus round. This created competition among players who could potentially earn more if chosen for the follow-up game.

The results of the experiment reveal a lot about competition. Participants playing the simple donation game became more cooperative the longer they played, with donations that helped the group as a whole increasing at each round. When punishments did happen, they were “moralistic punishments” directed toward the uncooperative participants.

For the other set of competing participants, however, “antisocial punishments” were more common and aimed at the most cooperative players. There was no altruistic increase in donations over the course of five rounds.

Researchers analyzed the results of the experiments, making allowances for alternate explanations. They reason that people in competitive environments become more selfish and less charitable toward others. But when competition is removed, cooperation increases and the punishments are meted out to those who are uncooperative.

They say that antisocial punishment is basically a self-preservation tactic. When people are in a situation where they want to be singled out and chosen, they do not like someone else to make them look bad.

So competitors have two choices. They can either make themselves look better by trying to outdo the do-gooders, or they can make the nice person look bad.

There are risks, of course, in punishing others. People know that if they get caught, they themselves will look bad. So in real-life situations, antisocial punishments are usually subtle or indirect attacks.

Researchers say this strategy goes back to hunter-gatherer societies, where excellent hunters were kept out of leadership roles. “In a lot of these societies, they defended their equal status by bringing down somebody who could potentially lord things over everybody else,” Barclay says.

“You can imagine within an organization today the attitude, ‘Hey, you’re working too hard and making the rest of us look bad.’ Barclay even goes so far as to say, “In some organizations people are known for policing how hard others work, to make sure no one is raising the bar from what is expected.”

Researchers hope their research brings new light to this age-old, dog-eat-dog problem.

“One potential benefit of this research,” concludes Barclay, “is that by identifying and raising awareness of this competitive social strategy and what it does, maybe it will be less likely to work.”

The study results were published in the journal Psychological Science.