A View from Blue Grotto

Thursday, August 06, 2009

It's not a popularity contest

Do you ever find yourself pulling teeth, cajoling, even bribing others to get a project completed?

You are not alone. I recently unearthed a June 2005 HBR article titled: Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks, in it authors Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo studied the work-related interactions of employees.

Their research broke individuals into a four-part matrix: the competent jerk, the lovable fool (nice but dim), the lovable star (nice AND smart), and the incompetent jerk. Notice how those labeled ‘jerk’ need no further description.

Obviously, most people would prefer to work with the lovable star. But not everyone can offer both attributes – high likability and extremely capable. Maybe not surprisingly their research showed that if you can’t land the star, you’ll settle for the competent jerk. One executive said, “I can defuse my antipathy toward the jerk if he’s competent, but I can’t train someone who’s incompetent.”

Likability is, of course, subjective. As Casciaro and Lobo note, one person’s idea of charming is another person’s reptile. Likability also relies heavily on familiarity - seeing similar values, beliefs and attributes in a colleague. Simply being around a colleague for a length of time can breed that familiarity and then likability. But, is it entirely healthy? To rely only on people who reflect your preferences? Would a devil’s advocate – the competent jerk – afford a different dimension to the team?

Throughout the article, I found myself wondering if the context of their research would be different in today’s economic climate. Does personality matter right now? Is doing more with less, cost cutting, and holding our collective breaths taking precedence over personality differences? Or does it matter now more than ever?

I also found it interesting that the authors framed much of the conversation around knowledge sharing – the competent jerk may hold some incredibly valuable information, but at what price? While the lovable fool is likely to offer up his menu of nuanced information, contacts, and opinions more freely.

The meatiest content comes when Casciaro and Lobo offer suggestions on how best to leverage the array of personality types. How do you capitalize on that lovable star performer, so that they don’t burn out too quickly? Can a leopard (the competent jerk) change its spots? And most importantly, can you build a culture where everyone learns to play nice with one another?

Email me with examples of how you navigate personalities in your organization.

Link to a free copy of the article from the world wide web: http://www.rotman.utoronto.ca/facbios/file/Competent_Jerk.pdf

Yvonne Hundshamer
President, Blue Grotto Inc.

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