I think of myself as a pretty nice guy. I was reared to be respectful and courteous. I genuinely like people, and there are very few people I’ve met that I can’t get along with. I don’t enjoy conflict, and I can usually find a way around friction. My wife thinks I could have been a good diplomat.
In many ways, I’ve felt that being a nice guy has served me well in the art business. As a gallery owner, I have the opportunity to interact with people from a wide range of backgrounds. I work with uber successful business people from big cities as well as struggling artists from isolated rural areas. I’ve always found that by being genuine and helpful I’ve been able to build great relationships.
At the back of my mind, however, I’ve sometimes wondered if being a nice guy has also somehow been a handicap. I say this because, as a student of business and history, I can’t help but notice that some of the greatest figures in both history and business haven’t exactly been nice people. Think Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or General George Patton. These figures ignore(d) many social niceties in order to realize their visions.
Recent business literature has picked up on this idea. If you read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs you learned that he was obsessive, rude, and demanding. You can find any number of articles with titles like “Why nice guys finish last” or “The Upside of Your Dark Side.”
More importantly, as a gallery owner, I’ve noticed that some galleries cultivate an air of unapproachability. Okay, that was my nice side again – the truth is that some galleries try to be snobs. These galleries won’t acknowledge your existence, or, if they do, the salespeople look down their noses at you. Their approach seems to be the polar opposite of the Xanadu Gallery approach.
It was with some interest, therefore, that I read the article Why It Pays to Be a Jerk in the June 2015 issue of the Atlantic.
The article’s author explores the concept of whether it pays to be nice, and interviews experts in business and psychology to find out if there is a scientific base to this idea that jerks come out on top. The article begins
Smile at the customer. Bake cookies for your colleagues. Sing your subordinates’ praises. Share credit. Listen. Empathize. Don’t drive the last dollar out of a deal. Leave the last doughnut for someone else.
Sneer at the customer. Keep your colleagues on edge. Claim credit. Speak first. Put your feet on the table. Withhold approval. Instill fear. Interrupt. Ask for more. And by all means, take that last doughnut. You deserve it.
Follow one of those paths, the success literature tells us, and you’ll go far. Follow the other, and you’ll die powerless and broke. The only question is, which is which?
Of all the issues that preoccupy the modern mind—Nature or nurture? Is there life in outer space? Why can’t America field a decent soccer team?—it’s hard to think of one that has attracted so much water-cooler philosophizing yet so little scientific inquiry. Does it pay to be nice? Or is there an advantage to being a jerk?
I found the entire article fascinating, but of particular interest to those of us in the art business was the author’s exploration of whether or not retail businesses do better when they cultivate an image of snobbishness, and even more, do snobby salespeople sell more?
You should read the article, but the short answer is that in high-end retail settings (think Gucci or Lous Vitton) there actually are increased sales when the salesperson makes the customer feel somewhat rejected or looked down upon.
When it came to “aspirational” brands like Gucci, Burberry, and Louis Vuitton, participants were willing to pay more in a scenario in which they felt rejected.
However, these results were limited:
Finally, the effect seemed to be limited to a single encounter. When Dahl and his colleagues followed up with the buyers, he found evidence of a boomerang effect much like the one he had felt a few minutes after his purchase: the buyers were less favorably disposed toward the brand than they had been at the outset.
My takeaways from the article:
- Being a jerk, in and of itself won’t lead to success
- Jerks can succeed if they bend and break the rules to the benefit of their team
- Taking the initiative and acting with the confidence isn’t the same thing as being a jerk
Whether it’s to my benefit or detriment, I’m stuck being a nice guy. I’ve found that being friendly is the only way that feels natural to me. Fortunately, I’ve also found that if you can be nice and competent, you can succeed in the art business.
Read the article (free) on theAtlantic.com
What Do You Think?
Do you feel that sometimes being a jerk is called for? Have you observed artists or gallery staff acting rudely? Do you feel that sometimes being a jerk is the only option to make things happen? Have you felt handicapped because you’re not a jerk? Share your thoughts, experiences and stories in the comments below.