Rather than being one dimensional--either a terror or a softie--it is advantageous to have a tough streak that can be applied when necessary. This requires being able to read situations correctly, including one's own strengths and weaknesses, the nature of the organization, and the demands of the problem or opportunity at hand.
Trump or Buffett?
Looking at role models among successful people can provide conflicting answers to the question of whether nice employees finish last. Donald Trump, who is arguably the world's most high-profile boss, seems to pride himself on exhibiting boorish behavior. This is the animal-kingdom approach to leadership, where being a leader means being able to periodically assert your dominance over the rest of the pack, which in turn keeps the pack in line and amplifies the leader's power.
However, before anyone assumes this is the sole blueprint for success, they should consider another example. Not the world's most high-profile boss, but simply the world's richest man: Warren Buffett. Since money is the business world's means of keeping score, Buffett's fortune, earned at the helm of Berkshire Hathaway, would put him at the top of the heap. In contrast to Trump, Buffett is known for his folksy charm, proving that there is more than one path to success.
What to Consider Before Playing Hardball
As for which role model today's employees should follow, the answer might be to draw from both. Certainly, being easygoing and accommodating all the time would probably result in a person being overlooked and bypassed for opportunities, but the Attila-the-Hun act can lead to spectacular career flameouts. To help determine the right approach, here are five questions an employee should think about before deciding to play hardball.
• What is the culture of the organization?
The tough-guy (or gal) act will play better in some companies than others. For example Wall Street firms are notorious for audacious displays of power by executives. Move to the West Coast though and many Internet firms prefer a more supportive and collaborative approach. In between, the range is as wide culturally as it is geographically, and it is important for employees to understand the ethos of their own firms. It is important to know whether one is expected to run with the bulls or to avoid being a bull in a china shop.
As a general rule, keep in mind that a Harvard Business School survey found that people would rather work with a lovable fool than a competent jerk. Whether this is right or wrong is immaterial--it's simply the way people are. The competent jerk's skills may be devalued just because other employees don't want input or involvement from someone they can't stand.
• Who are the other players?
A company may be a bare-knuckles environment, but it's always wise to check out the strength of the competition before starting a fight. A corporate culture that embraces open competition is likely to attract a wide field of people willing to play tough. Especially when dealing with more experienced people it is important that an employee choose carefully when and how to take them on. Here's where a little diplomacy can be a nice complement to more confrontational attributes, because building alliances might be the only way to get around more entrenched employees.
• Does the employee have indispensable skills?
Being assertive works very well for employees who have indispensable skills. Someone who is hard to replace can afford to be a little more demanding. On the other hand, an employee who does not add value or is easily replaced can ill afford to make waves. In other words, someone should not risk becoming a problem employee if the easiest solution to that problem is to find a replacement.
• What is the employee's true nature?
Not everyone is cut out to be a type "A" personality. People who aren't really cutthroat by nature tend to fail when they try to act that way, and they make themselves miserable in the process. People who do best at the take-no-prisoners approach to business are those who instinctively think of life as a personal competition that they are driven to win. This certainly does not mean more mild-mannered sorts can't be successful. It's just that the Trumps of the world have to act like the Trumps, and the Buffetts have to act like the Buffetts. Any attempt to act otherwise will soon wear thin.
• What are the employee's career goals?
Long-term career goals also make a difference in how a person should act in the workplace. Someone who has the CEO's office in mind needs to make an impression early and often. This doesn't necessarily mean stepping on toes, but chances are a race to the top slot will entail demonstrating dominance over other competitors somewhere along the line. On the other hand, most people have no interest in the pressures and commitment the top slot entails. For employees who want purely to find a comfortable niche within an organization, making waves is the wrong way to go.
The Winning Formula
For those keeping score--and in the corporate world, just about everybody is--Warren Buffett is currently considered the world's richest man, while Donald Trump failed to crack the top 100. Still, Trump's ruthless approach has made him a billionaire in his own right, proving that there is more than one path to a successful career.For most people, the winning formula might be to blend a little of both approaches. It's good to show ambition, willingness to make tough decisions, and the ability to stand one's ground when necessary. At the same time, wrapping that iron fist in a velvet glove of good manners and teamwork will make an employee more likely to be sought out for opportunities.