By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/10/2011 7:28:58 AM ET 2011-10-10T11:28:58

Nice guys and gals take note: You may be at risk of being overlooked for positions of power.

When it comes to being a leader in a highly competitive situation or during tough times, altruism can be perceived as a sign of weakness, while being selfish and aggressive shows strength.

Those are the findings of a new study by researchers at a trio of universities: the Kellogg School of Management, Stanford Graduate School of Business and Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

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“Being selfish makes you seem more dominant and being dominant makes you seem more attractive as a leader, especially when there’s competition,” said Robert Livingston, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School.

The study concluded that “altruism does increase prestige,” but people who are generous or altruistic can appear weak or gullible, Livingston added. “It basically makes you look less dominant and less power seeking. That’s the paradox,” he said.

The findings came out of three experiments in which participants were placed in groups and given tokens representing money. They had the option to either keep the tokens or contribute them to a group pool. The contributions either helped fellow group members, or simultaneously helped group members and harmed those in another group.

Researchers found that individuals who were selfless and kind gained prestige and admiration. Those who exhibited dominant personalities — being self-interested, or aggressive to competitors — were viewed as having alpha status; they were “the top dog,” Livingston explained.

“As humans we are wired to respond to dominance” in terms of who we perceive as leadership worthy, he said.

The research did not look at whether being nice or being selfish made you a better leader. It was about “leader emergence,” not whom we perceive would make a better leader, he said.

“On a subconscious level this is the conclusion people are coming to,” he said. “Kindness equals weakness.”

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Despite the findings, most of us seem to want to work with and for people who are kind, and we believe those individuals are good at what they do. But many of us suspect that the aggressive ones succeed in moving up the ladder.

A national survey by Workplace Options, a work-life services provider, found that:

  • 45 percent said workers with more “agreeable” personalities are more successful at their workplace.
  • 43 percent said more “agreeable” workers are more productive.
  • 71 percent said more “agreeable” workers make better co-workers.
  • However, 43 percent said “aggressive” personalities are more likely to be noticed and rewarded.

Rob Kaplan, former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs and now a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, doesn’t buy the idea that selfish people make better leaders.

“I don’t believe that those qualities are what draws people to work for any sustained period of time for a leader. I believe the opposite strongly,” said Kaplan, who wrote “What to Ask the Person in The Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential.”

The type of leaders people want to work for, he said, are those with “values, adherence to ideals, a vision, a mission they believe in; a person that has high ideals. I’m not saying you have to be a nice guy or a woman to be a CEO, but I think you have to have integrity, values, and work with people, cultivate people.”

While that may be the ideal, the realities of today seem to be skewing what we want and what we really need, said Bill Withers, assistant director of Wartburg College’s Institute for Leadership Education.

In this tough economic environment, he said, people are looking for individuals who are results and action oriented.

“In this 21st century culture in business, with social media and everything moving at a breakneck speed, we don’t have time to let someone grow,” Withers added. “You have to hit the ground running.”

And, he said, there’s a high level of feeling betrayed among the population right now, thanks to the greed and corruption that permeates everything from business to religious organizations. That has left many people wondering if being nice really does pay off.

Indeed, Richard Laermer, CEO of public relations firm RLMpr and author of “2011 TrendSpotting” is disillusioned.

“Every time I’ve been super nice to anyone in business since this last tumultuous decade started it has bitten me audaciously on the ass,” he said. “You have to be tough and do what's right for you and if people see weakness they push those buttons.”

Withers, however, has hope.

“I do believe you can be empathic and can be caring for others as you move up, while at the same time getting results,” he said.

Getting the opportunities to move up without some cutthroat characteristics, however, may be the challenge.

Mark Faust, principal of turnaround consultancy Echelon Management and author of “Growth or Bust! Proven Turnaround Strategies to Grow Your Business,” said the assumption often is that you need someone who is harsh and ruthless to lead.

“I had one company that didn’t do its due diligence and went with a guy who was a ruthless, a tough guy manager, for their CEO,” he recalled, because the management liked his hardball approach. “He was a horrendous failure and in less than a year was out on the street looking for his next victim.”

Our assumptions of what makes a good leader, he said, “are often wrong.”

Indeed, Kellogg’s Livingston sees his findings on how we perceive dominance and weakness when it comes to leadership as a call to action.

“Our data is an explanation on why we get corruption. People who are more likely to be moral, kind and pro-social are least likely to be elected to these leadership roles,” he said. “That increases the likelihood of corruption and malfeasance because we’ve got the wrong people in positions of leadership.”

Our perceptions, however, won’t change overnight, he said, so people trying to climb the ladder of success have to realize the dynamic that’s going on.

“One has to manage one’s impressions such that your kindness doesn’t make you come off as being passive or submissive or soft and not able to function in a leader’s role,” he said.

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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