A case against agreeableness

“You’re so lovely.” “You’ll never meet a nicer person.” “Have you met Steve – he’s great!”

All these sounds like compliments, right? Absolutely! I pride myself on my my level of agreeableness. I like the positive impact I can have on others – in fact, I thrive on it. It makes me happy that that’s how my colleagues, staff and stakeholders see me. My last 360˚ feedback contained the most comments on my approachability, empathy, personability, and positive approach. So why am I making a case against agreeableness? Why am I arguing against something that’s integral to my own nature?

Because we rely too much on it.

We make decisions about who to trust and who to work with based on how well we get on with another person. We avoid interacting with people who make us feel uncomfortable and awkward. We make assumptions on individuals based on how they make us feel – if they smile at us and seem excited to see us, we assume we can trust them and that they will open and honest with us. Most of this is decided almost the instant we meet someone. My fellow people-pleasers, this works well for us. We’ve had years of practice putting people at ease and building an atmosphere of trust and safety. Do you know who else masters these skills?

Fakers.

For those of you unfamiliar with organisational psychologist Adam Grant’s work, his video here and book, introduces to us the concept of Givers and Takers. Super quick summary – Givers help others, usually at the expense of themselves. Takers will trample on everyone else to meet their own needs. There is another group – one where most people fall into; the Matchers. These are people where help is transactional.

As a Giver, who is now in my third burn-out in my career, there are some lessons to be learnt by this Ted Talk. Here, Adam explores how agreeableness skews how we identify those people. We assume that if someone is approachable, they’re likely to be Givers. Let me just elaborate on Adam’s point on why this is incorrect…

I can safely say that *spoilers* the demise of Games of Thrones’ Petyr Baelish, more commonly known as Littlefinger, was joyous and cathartic. Why? Sorry if you’re not a GoT fan. To catch up, this video explores the methods he uses to be the absolute worst.

He was hateful character – manipulating the key plot points in the whole series, without guilt or remorse. And he got away with it because he was agreeable; he was able to win people over and influence those around him. He made sure he was in the right space, at the right time, with the right people. His focus was laser-sharp, and his favourite tools were concealment, misdirection and his disarming smile.

If this reminds you of someone, trust that instinct and create some distance, especially if you’re a Giver. Fakers thrive off Givers, more so than disagreeable Takers. We’re likely to stay away from people who are difficult or create strategies to deal with them. We’re not so good at identifying people like Petyr Baelish in real-life. Have a strategy that protects you from that type of person. Distance yourself if you need to. Or join me in Adam’s revolution to move them out.

On the other hand, there is a final group who are unsung, hidden allies. The disagreeable Givers. I’ve made friends with a few of them in my time – the ones who are grumpy, difficult and critical; they’re usually quite sweary. They seem to be the cause or in the middle of conflict. If you take a deep breath, close your eyes and listen – their argument will always be focused on the problem; it doesn’t get personal (unless the conflict’s been allowed to continue for too long). As Adam says:

“Disagreeable givers are the most undervalued people in our organizations, because they’re the ones who give the critical feedback that no one wants to hear but everyone needs to hear.”

Adam Grant, Ted Talk: Are you a giver or a taker?

What I’ve learnt through this talk and book has been threefold:

1. Even though I want to help others succeed, I can’t sacrifice my well-being to do that – especially when there are people who will take advantage of that

2. I now understand why I found connecting with some people who were perceive as disagreeable quite easy – disagreeable doesn’t mean that they are a selfish person

3. I absolutely want to work and influence the world of work where people can contribute in the way that is best for them, without being taken advantage of – or the fear of that happening.

I hope you got something from it and that it helps you on your own journey.

Lou

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