You prefer lovable fools to competent jerks

Photo by Cemetery Belle

That’s the argument of this Harvard Business Review article by Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo. They’ve researched how collaboration networks actually form within organizations, trying to work out how people choose who to connect with to get a task done. They tried to measure two attributes, competence and likableness, and then look at how those measures relate to who you decide to work with. Based on the combinations of likableness and competence, they classify people into incompetent jerks, competent jerks, lovable fools and lovable stars.

Two corners of the matrix are obvious, nobody wants to work with somebody who’s bad at their job and has no personal skills, and everybody is happy to work with a superstar who’s also a nice person. The surprising part is that whilst most people claim to prefer competent jerks to lovable fools as work partners, in practice they choose people they like regardless of their competence.

They talk about some of the consequences of this, that you tend to have more homogeneous groups of people working together with less diversity of viewpoints, since people tend to like others who are similar to themselves. They also informally talk about the mechanism that drives people to prefer likable fools over more competent but grating alternatives. They mention trust and familiarity, but it would be interesting to see how much correlation there is with the network measure of closure within a group. It seems likely that you share a lot of mutual friends with likable people, since by definition a lot of people like them, and so the reputation cost of letting you down will be a lot higher for them. Competent jerks won’t have those same third-party ties.

Based on my experience I avoid anyone who’s a real jerk purely because they also tend to be unreliable in delivering results. There’s only a theoretical distinction between someone who can’t do a task, and someone who can but won’t, and I think that managers overestimate their ability to change a jerk into someone productive, and underestimate the damage jerks do to their peers. I love Bob Sutton’s work with the No Asshole Rule looking at the
impacts of jerks in the workplace, and how to spot and deal with them.

I do think the matrix above is incomplete though, there’s a large group of employees who aren’t widely liked, but aren’t jerks either, they’re just socially disconnected from their colleagues. They’re often the bedrock of the team, quietly getting work done. These are the people that management can really help, by acting as an interface between them and the outside world, protecting them from perceived hassle and distilling the competing external demands into simpler requirements.

You’ll need to pay $7 to get the full document, but the summary gives you a good overview. There’s a free technical paper that’s aimed at an academic audience, the article itself is focused on practical lessons you can draw from their research. The work relies on the standard self-reporting surveys to figure out networks, as always I’d be fascinated to see if automated data-mining techniques on email and phone usage within a company gives the same picture.

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