New Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon has something of a reputation, but it's not the one we might naturally associate with Hollywood success stories: Fallon is, by nearly all accounts, a genuinely nice guy. As Vanity Fair described, "He possesses no ironic cynicism, no attitude, no agenda other than to make people laugh." He writes thank-you notes to restaurants that treat him well. He's always respectful of his guests. In fact, it's this nice guy quality that's been credited with helping Fallon attract ratings-boosting, high profile guests -- and convincing them to take part in his show's often-silly shenanigans. He often features Bruce Springsteen singing parodies of his own songs. He recruited First Lady Michelle Obama to dance the "dougie" as part of a skit on the evolution of "Mom dancing."
Studies have long challenged the idea that nice guys finish first. Being kind and considerate in the workplace has been perceived as a weakness, and an invitation to disrespect, and indeed studies have found that such behavior does not seem to come with many rewards. A 2011 study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame found that although "agreeableness" -- defined as someone who is warm, sympathetic, kind, and cooperative -- is the most valued characteristic when we talk about who we want to spend time with, that same "agreeableness" carries a penalty at work. Disagreeable men are considered "tough negotiators," and earn more than their agreeable counterparts. Among CEOs, narcissism isn't just tolerated, but often encouraged.
Consider one of recent history's most famously not nice (yet enormously profitable) CEOs: Apple's Steve Jobs. Workplace bullying, meanwhile, is up. Even Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes, in Lean In, about the numerous instances in which being overly accommodating -- not taking the best seat at a meeting, waving off praise, underestimating their billable hours to avoid overcharging -- holds women, in particular, back at work. Certainly in the case of the Miami Dolphins, it appears bad behavior was a celebrated part of workplace culture. According to an official report on the matter, players considered racist epithets and homophobic language "part of the job."
So is Fallon an anomaly? Or does he represent a shift in the balance of power between the tyrants and the team players? It's possible that Fallon is a natural-born nice guy: A 2012 study published in Psychological Science found that niceness can be genetic; that people who have certain types of oxytocin and vasopressin receptor genes, as well as generally positive outlooks on the world, are more likely to be generous. But the atmosphere at work is changing, too, and Fallon is but one example of that shift. Millennials -- those born since 1980 -- in particular embrace the notion that niceness should be rewarded, while dishonesty and greed should be condemned. According to a Knights of Columbus poll, 77 percent of millennials believe that business decisions based on greed are morally wrong, while more than 80 percent believe the ethics and values that shape our personal lives should apply in business as well. In The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World With Kindness, author Linda Kaplan Thaler, an award-winning ad exec, argues that good deeds are returned, not punished, using her own professional acts of kindness as examples. Helping opponents, she writes, can even be an effective strategy--a good way to boost your career.
Of course, in the NFL, the takeaway, too, has been that change of some sort is needed. NFL insiders say that it's likely teams will enact stricter and more specific anti-harassment policies, mirroring a nationwide move to implement anti-bullying policies within corporations big and small. But changing office culture is not just about forcing co-workers to be nice to one another. Instead, it's about helping them see the benefits, to all, of that kindness. Policies are important, but so is fostering a culture in which bad behavior is not rewarded, financially or otherwise. What is? Plain, old human kindness. Fallon's part in that effort starts tonight.
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