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Competence vs. Likability

As a CEO, would you prefer an arrogant, high-performer; or a friendly, mediocre employee?

A study published in the Harvard Business Review set out to answer this question. The researchers conducted a survey among executive of companies in the European Union.

Their results showed that, no matter the type of organization involved, everybody wanted to work with a likeable and excellent worker . . . while nobody wanted to deal with an incompetent jerk.

Qualifications and Skills

Things became more muddled though, regarding competent jerks and likable idiots.

When asked about their preference, managers declared, officially, that when it comes to getting a task completed, competence trumps likability.

Personality and Character

In practice however, personality and character seem more important than skill and experience.

That’s because emotions turn out to play a major role in forming working relationships (that is, job-oriented relationships, not necessarily personal friendships).

The Gate

Personal feelings actually works as a gating factor: if someone is strongly disliked, it’s virtually irrelevant whether or not he is competent — people won’t want to (or can’t) cooperate with him anyway.

On the other hand, if someone is liked, her colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence that she has to offer.

And this tendency doesn’t exist only in extreme cases — it holds true across the board, in all industries, enterprises, operations and projects.

Avoiding Jerks

There are reasons why coworkers try to avoid the jerk. Gaining important information usually requires a thorough explanation and dialog: you might, for instance, need a meeting, to brainstorm or ask follow-up questions with a colleague.

This kind of interaction would be difficult with someone competent but cantankerous.


Furthermore, in order to know something crucial, you often have to reveal not only your aims, goals, needs and wants, but your weaknesses and vulnerabilities, which can be unsettling with a smart jerk — especially with the thought he may badmouth you behind your back.

In contrast, the lovable fool is more likely to share whatever (albeit modest) information or method he has and help others put them to use, without any intention of taking an unfair advantage of others.

Social Network

Social network, a vital element in a good work environment, is also tied to friendliness.

With extensive social connections, a person who doesn’t know the answer, will likely know someone else who knows someone else who does.

Social network, and hence the ability to perform and develop, is improved by connecting with more people.

Likeable people have much greater social network to access the knowledge of others . . . whereas competent jerks frequently have only their own competence to fall back upon.

Being More Likeable

A little extra social likability goes a longer way than a little extra business or technical expertise — which are also necessary — in making a better work environment.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *


1. The basis of the study was observing office dynamics with hidden cameras. True or false?

2. Were there both definite and not very clear answers to the main question?

3. What kind of people do CEOs want to hire and work with (officially)? Is this entirely true in reality?

4. Human relationships play a big role in the work environment. Is this right or wrong? Describe the gating factor?

5. Do employees work in isolation? Describe worker interaction.

6. Is there a difference between working with a jerk and a nice person?

7. Social networks and networking is very important. Yes or no?

8. What is the main idea, theme or message of this text?


A. I would rather work with a nice, smart, competent colleague rather than a nasty, mean, mediocre jerk. Is this correct or incorrect? Would you rather work with a competent jerk or a friendly incompetent person?

B. Are there smart, competent jerks in your office, department or company? Describe them.

C. How would you describe employees and people in general in your country? How do you compare them with Americans or people of other nations?

D. Do you think employees or workers need to change in your company or industry? If yes, how should they change?

E. What will happen in the future?


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