Are You a Competent Jerk or a Lovable Fool?

Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo wrote in “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks” in the Harvard Business Review (June 2005) about how people choose who they work with.

“In most cases, people choose their work partners according to two criteria. One is competence at the job … the other is likability.”

Arrayed on a two-by-two competency vs. likeability matrix, everyone prefers to affiliate with the lovable star–no one with the incompetent jerk. No surprise there.

But what happens when we are forced to choose from the last two quadrants–lovable fool and competent jerk? Place your bets, now.

Based on data from four diverse organizations and over 10,000 work relationships, Casciaro and Lobo discovered (drum roll….) —

Yep, you guessed it. We prefer the lovable fool – even though we may not readily admit it.

We say out loud that we prefer skills and expertise (it sounds unprofessional and illogical not to) and that being “nice” is a nice “bonus.” But in practice, their study showed that your personal feelings about your colleague play a more important role in forming work relationships than do your evaluations of their competence.

“In fact, feelings worked as a gating factor: If someone is strongly disliked, it’s almost irrelevant whether or not she is competent; people don’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.”

Feelings trump rational thought. Again.

Implication: our clients would rather we be lovable fools than competent jerks. Which means we’d be better off if we spent more time boosting our likability than our competence, despite what our clients say out loud.

There may be a better business case for charm school than for business school.

2 replies
  1. Ali Navidi
    Ali Navidi says:

    I will remember this next time I am deciding whether or not to get into an argument with a client over a technical issue.

    Thanks Andrea!


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  1. […] being perfect, or with doing and getting things right most of the time. While it’s certainly important to be competent for people to trust you, it’s equally if not more important to be trustworthy by being authentic. I know I’m more […]

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