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Be Outgoing, Make Half a Million More?

A recent study suggests the right personality can mean more pay over a lifetime. But which traits?

Remember the saying, “Nice guys finish last?” That actually may have some truth to it—at least when it comes to compensation, according to a recent study on pay and personality.

Research from Miriam Gensowski at the University of Copenhagen found that men who were highly conscientious and extroverted made more money over their lifetimes than people with other personality traits, such as being agreeable or neurotic. How much more? An average extra $567,000—or nearly 17% of average lifetime earnings—for being conscientious, and an average $490,100 more for being extroverted. For women, the effects of personality weren’t as stark—in part because there aren’t as many women earning higher amounts because of the gender pay gap.

While some agreeable behavior can put you in good stead, sometimes you have to push back.

What’s more, men who were more agreeable—in other words, less aggressive and more considerate of others—received smaller paychecks. Gensowski concluded that a mix of education levels and personality traits “reveals that personality matters most for highly educated men.”

To be sure, we’re talking about just a single study—and one that shows a correlation between personality and pay, not a direct causation. Indeed, pay increases typically are a function of what a person does (their performance) and how they do it (their competencies). “Organizations will often promote people in certain roles who are seen to have differentiated competencies and behaviors,” says Tom McMullen, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and a leader in the firm’s Rewards and Benefits Solutions practice. So how can you use these findings to boost your own pay potential?

Survey the scene.

Every company has a different culture. What worked for you at your last gig may completely backfire at your current job. A person who’s a natural introvert could perform well in a role that requires constant listening but tank in a position that needs a certain level of schmoozing. Similarly, someone who was valued for speaking candidly at one place could now be viewed as the Debbie Downer of the office if she brings up doubts at every team meeting. So, before you begin tweaking your own way of doing things, first see what appears to be working in your current environment.

Tap into your inner extrovert.

Though Gensowski’s research shows that being outgoing boosts pay, you don’t have to change your whole personality to succeed. “You can be a situational extrovert,” says Jason Levin, a coach at Ready Set Launch in Washington, DC. Start by trying to speak up more in meetings or chat with colleagues at company gatherings. The more your practice, the easier it will become. And to counter the exhaustion that comes with mustering up the energy to go outside your comfort zone, block out time to decompress. “I can play an extroverted game, but only for so long,” says Boston-based executive coach Randi Bussin, who describes herself as a natural introvert.

Boost your conscientiousness.

One way to evolve your work personality is to tweak your level of detail to ensure you hit deadlines, follow through on communications, and give status updates before you’re even asked for them. If you’re not a detail-oriented person, set reminders or ask a colleague to help you remember to do a certain task. While this shift may seem small (and annoying), follow-through on even the simplest of things will help you become indispensable to your boss—which, ultimately, could help you earn a raise or a promotion. After all, the best way to approach conscientiousness is to think about what your boss needs, says Kristen McAlister, president and COO of Cerius Executives. “You’re taking things off your boss’s plate and making life easier for them,” she says.

Don’t be too nice.

While some agreeable behavior can put you in good stead—no one wants to work with a jerk, after all—sometimes you have to push back, whether that means saying no to a project or being the outlier on an idea that others like. Finding a balance, though, is a delicate matter. Push back too often and you look like the office naysayer; agree too much and you’ll likely be viewed as a pushover. This dance is even trickier for women, who tend to have a harder time finding a way to be both agreeable and authoritative. One way to begin to hone your skills is to learn the preferences of different people, says Mary Abbajay, president and CEO of Careerstone Group in Washington, DC. “If the person likes numbers, show them a lot of data,” she says. Using facts and figures can often help keep feelings at bay—and let the results (and your smarts) shine through.

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