If you had to choose, who would you prefer to work with? A competent person who is not very likeable, or a likeable person who is not all that competent?

People pick colleagues for any number of reasons: the prestige of being associated with a star performer, for example, or the hope that spending time with a strategically placed superior will further their careers.

But in most cases, people choose their work partners according to two criteria: one is competence at the job, the other is likability. Obviously both things matter. Less obvious is how much they matter--and exactly how they matter.

To gain some insight into these questions, researchers at Harvard Business School asked people in North America and Europe how often they had work-related interactions with every other person in the organization. They then asked them to rate all the people in the company in terms of how much they personally liked each one and how well each did his or her job.

These two criteria--competence and likability--combine to produce four archetypes (imagine them as four quadrants on a graph): the competent jerk, who knows a lot but is unpleasant to deal with; the lovable fool, who doesn't know much but is a delight to have around; the lovable star, who's both competent and likable; and the incompetent jerk, who...well, that's clear enough.

These archetypes are caricatures, of course. Hopefully, your company gets rid of the hopelessly incompetent and the socially clueless. Still, with a little effort, you can probably squeeze the people in your organization into their proper place on the graph.

The research showed that no matter what kind of organization was 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.

The studies, done in four very different organizations, consistently showed that most people would choose a "lovable fool" (someone who, to varying degrees, is more likable than competent) over a "competent jerk."

At first glance, such a choice is both understandable (it's nice to be around people you like), and cockeyed (why would you prefer to work with someone who is, to a certain degree, incompetent?).

The answer has something to do with the way we work in groups, getting tasks done without friction, and the fact that it's easier to teach someone how to do a task than it is to change a personality. After all, if everyone likes the fool, they'll help him out and enjoy doing it. In fact, the lovable fool may actually contribute to the productivity of the group.

Isn't it strange how powerful likeability is? It covers a host of sins. It seems to inoculate a person against the charge of shallowness, perhaps because a likeable person ignites the emotional centers of our brains, and these warm feelings override our critical judgment.

And isn't it wonderful that we can point to evidence that being more likable than competent is valuable to the work process--more valuable than being a highly competent jerk.

Looks like an emotional decision can be rational after all.

Published on: Aug 11, 2014