Fable Teaches Lessons, But Do Nice Guys Really Finish Last?

Boeing Co. today announced that it will up its layoffs to 10 000 unfortunate employees. The bad news came hard on the heels of downsizing announcements in recent days from all over the tech sector.

And no company has been spared from the toll of the financial downturn, even among the greatest. Sprint: 8000. Microsoft: 5000. IBM: 4000. Texas Instruments: 3400. And so on, and so on.

The mass layoffs have cast a pall over the engineering community worldwide, no doubt. Still, those who do have jobs must continue to work and be productive, even with the sword of further cuts looming over them.

Into such a worrisome environment comes an instructive fable that the editors at IEEE Spectrum thought deserved attention.

In the online pages of Datamation, contributor Eric Spiegel, a veteran software developer, tells a tale of office politics run amok in an IT department facing layoffs.

The article, Do Nice Engineers Finish Last in Tough Times?, relates the story of three mid-level managers working at a server farm who have to cut staff by 50 percent due to the economy.

Stuart, a systems manager, is the "nice guy" in Spiegel's script. He believes in doing the right thing by others, for his team and his firm. Doug is his counterpart in security. He's the "not so nice guy," who thinks of himself first and others only when it suits his purposes. Then there's the director of IT, Kelly, who must decide who stays on and who goes.

'Kelly gathered her team of managers and asked them to rate their employees and then she would work with them to determine who would be laid off. What she didnâ''t tell them was that she was rating her direct reports because managers would be on the chopping block as well.'

You can guess what happens next. Doug meets secretly with Kelly and tells her: "Really, Stuart is too nice and isnâ''t capable of making the tough decisions that will be necessary for us to survive this downturn. I will be ruthless and make you look really, really good, Kelly." So Kelly fires Stuart.

Ratting out his co-worker gets the ruthless guy what he wants, and the company gets the results it wanted, regardless of morality.

Spiegel concludes by asking, "So what would you have done in Kellyâ''s shoes?"

Good question. Will the firm be better off with aggressive types such as Doug or loyal types such as Stuart?

It makes for a robust discussion thread for Datamation, and there are plenty of comments following Spiegel's article. You should read them for yourself and chime in with your own opinions (which is the whole point).

Back in the real world, though, there is no right or wrong answer to the dilemma Spiegel concocts over the long haul. It's an age-old classic of management studies and plays out everyday in the trenches of the corporate world to various resolutions (see Gordon Gekko and Bud Fox in the movie "Wall Street" for a slightly less fictional take on the paradox).

The kicker in the question, however, lies in the words "in tough times."

While Spiegel's fable may be naïve, I believe his motives for presenting it are sincere (although highly biased to appeal to the Stuart's of the technosphere). So the question he asks in his headline, whether "nice engineers finish last in tough times," deserves a hearing, in my opinion, and I might as well cough up a brief response of my own to it here.

First, under full disclosure, I'm not an engineer or a developer, just a writer who covers the tech beat. Moreover, I've worked for the publisher that put Spiegel's piece on the Web, which would be JupiterOnlineMedia. In fact, I used to work for its predecessor, internet.com, and before that worked for EarthWeb (which acquired Datamation a decade ago and positioned the publication as its IT Management vessel). And to complicate things further, EarthWeb itself started out as a software firm. So while I was writing for the company's online presence, I was surrounded by developers who were creating some of the first Internet applications of the Nineties, such as interactive chat and peer-to-peer file sharing. Whew.

So I've actually seen the office politics described in Spiegel's article. And in my experience, I've got to admit that "nice" engineers actually do finish last in tough times.

It's a matter of human nature. When conditions turn bad, managers get nervous. Their fear tends to lead them to favor aggressive, short-term solutions. And aggressive types tend to be attracted to likeminded individuals.

Yet most people who have heard the famous quote "nice guys finish last" think it means that good people are always doomed to lose. It doesn't. The quote refers to the thinking of the old Brooklyn Dodgers' manager, Leo Durocher, who uttered something like it in 1946. In an interview, Durocher commented on his cross-town rivals, the old New York Giants, by saying: "Take a look at them. They're all nice guys, but they'll finish last." They did.

Durocher had put together a Brooklyn lineup of cold-blooded ballplayers back home after the war years, men who reflected his own demeanor, which could be summed up nicely by another of his trenchant quotes, "Ruthless tactics succeed more than kindness."

That team finished first in the National League the next year. They then lost the World Series to the New York Yankees, another bitter rival. But Durocher was not there. He had been suspended by the commissioner of baseball for off-field gambling. The following year, the Dodgers fired him and he joined the Giants as their skipper.

He then led the "nice guys" to a pair of historic first-place finishes. Durocher had come to discover that his famous line had limited relevance over time.

So "tough times" may bring out the worst in us, as anxiety leads to panic. In that regard, the IT boss in Spiegel's story, Kelly, is probably no different than the rest of us, flawed to some degree. But she certainly was not acting in the best interests of her company in the long run.


A colleague here at Spectrum Online has sent me a note pointing out a certain measure of implicit sexism in Spiegel's article: Stuart is a nice guy. Doug is a bad boy. Kelly must choose between them. She picks the bad boy. Therefore, as one commenter wrote in the discussion thread, "Kelly=Clueless Bimbo." My colleague, who happens to be a woman, wrote for attribution off the record that this particular comment was a "distillation of the story to its essence." She's got a point there.


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