Fools v Jerks

A couple of professors from Harvard and Duke business schools got together and examined the relationship between affability and competency at work. They generated a magic quadrant diagram like this:

Their findings are surprising.

Our research showed (not surprisingly) that, no matter what kind of organization we studied, everybody wanted to work with the lovable star, and nobody wanted to work with the incompetent jerk. Things got a lot more interesting, though, when people faced the choice between competent jerks and lovable fools.

Ask managers about this choice—and we’ve asked many of them, both as part of our research and in executive education programs we teach—and you’ll often hear them say that when it comes to getting a job done, of course competence trumps likability. "I can defuse my antipathy toward the jerk if he’s competent, but I can’t train someone who’s incompetent," says the CIO at a large engineering company. Or, in the words of a knowledge management executive in the IT department of a professional services firm: "I really care about the skills and expertise you bring to the table. If you’re a nice person on top of that, that’s simply a bonus."

But despite what such people might say about their preferences, the reverse turned out to be true in practice in the organizations we analyzed. Personal feelings played a more important role in forming work relationships—not friendships at work but job-oriented relationships—than is commonly acknowledged. They were even more important than evaluations of competence. In fact, feelings worked as a gating factor: We found that if someone is strongly disliked, it’s almost irrelevant whether or not she is competent; people won’t want to work with her anyway. By contrast, if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer. And this tendency didn’t exist only in extreme cases; it was true across the board. Generally speaking, a little extra likability goes a longer way than a little extra competence in making someone desirable to work with.

I’m sure that we can all reference experiences where we had colleagues that were less than affable (or even down right nasty). One particular person comes to mind for me – he shall remain anonymous, but he is extremely bright and reviled by almost everyone who has to work with him.

There is a lot of stuff in his head, none of which could be found in "How to Win Friends and Influence People", but for the technical details in a few areas there aren’t many people that know more than him.

I wonder what the implications are here for social software… There is a is a level of abstraction that social software provides that might act as a sort of "smoothing function". Perhaps smoothing the rough edges on the "competent jerk’s" personality, or allowing the relatively few areas of competency of the "loveable fool" to be highlighted, along with their natural proclivity relate to other people.

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