On competent jerks and lovable fools

The latest issue of Harvard Business Review had one interesting, albeit a little light article titled “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools and the formation of Social Networks” by Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo. It’s about how we choose those who we work with and the fact that some people just are jerks and some lovable regardless of their knowledge level. They utilize a basic two-by-two table with “competence” and “likability” as the variables, creating four basic types: competent jerks, incompetent jerks, lovable stars and lovable fools.

The two problem types are obviously the competent jerks – who basically know their stuff but are socially very, umm, challenged – and the lovable fools who are wonderful people but don’t really know all that much. The two other types are relatively straightforward to deal with. One you fire, one you hold on to really tight.

Anyhow, it turns out people would rather work with incompetent but nice co-workers instead of jerks who are competent. No huge surprise there, IMHO; as someone being a total jerk can easily wipe out any benefit of his or her competence, why would people even bother to work with them in the first place? What I did find surprising was that so many people in their data said they would rather choose the “competent jerk” over the “lovable fool” – and then actually did the opposite. It’s hypothesized that maybe people wanted to appear more professional by not letting personal traits influence their decision of choosing co-workers – very possible, but also rather de-humanizing. You simply cannot get around the fact that too much social tension (which the jerks bring in more than warranted) is disastrous for any work. The problems of working with the jerks are also brought up in the article:

But there are justifiable reasons to avoid the jerk. Sometimes it can be difficult to pry the needed information from him simply because he is a jerk. And knowledge often requires explanation to be useful – you might, for instance, want to brainstorm with someone or ask follow-up questions – and this kind of interaction may be difficult with a competent jerk.

While the authors propose incentives as one way of getting the jerks to co-operate better, I think it’s universally agreed that it is usually much easier to train a willing person the required skills and knowledge than to change the behaviour of an unwilling person. That should really be a no-brainer really. So instead of focusing on how to get the jerks act more normal, I think more weight should be put to training the nice people so that they could become “lovable stars”. Or at least focus on the real behavioural issues rather than trying to just mask them by incentives; it’s remarkably easy to tell when someone is faking it. While the article also does point out that the likable should be leveraged, it does not really concentrate on training their know-how but instead talks about utilizing them mainly as social catalysts.

I’m not saying behavioural modification for the jerks is a bad goal as such – I’m just saying that it’s probably easier to move people from the “lovable fool”-quadrant to the “lovable star”-quadrant than to move them there from the “competent jerk”-area. And the ideas of moving the incurable jerks to positions where they have limited social contact may be a good thing, too. Some people like to work alone whereas some need social contact – in my subjective opiniong, it’s often the jerks who prefer to work alone and often the liked people are social by nature in the first place.

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