Who would you rather have on your team: a loveable fool or a competent jerk?

Even though many might like to believe they’d pick the competent jerk to work with, more often than not they went with the lovable fool. It turns out if people are disliked it’s almost irrelevant to us how competent they may be:

Ask managers about this choice—and we’ve asked many of them, both as part of our re- search 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 sim- ply 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.

Of course, competence is more important than likability in some people’s choice of work partners. But why do so many others claim that to be the case? “Choosing the lovable fool over the competent jerk looks unprofessional,” suggests a marketing manager at a personal products company. “So people don’t like to admit it—maybe not even to themselves.”

Source: “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks” from Harvard Business Review

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About Eric Barker