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That has big implications for every organization—and not all of them are negative. When looking for help with a task at work, people turn to those best able to do the job. New research shows that work partners tend to be chosen not for ability but for likability.
Of course, everybody wants to work with the lovable star, and nobody wants to work with the incompetent jerk. More interesting is that people prefer the lovable fool over the competent jerk. That has big implications for every organization, as both of these types often represent missed opportunities.
Because they are liked by a disproportionate number of people, lovable fools can bridge gaps between diverse groups that might not otherwise interact. But their networking skills are often developed at the expense of job performance, which can make these employees underappreciated and vulnerable to downsizing. But many can be socialized through coaching or by being made accountable for bad behavior.
Others may need to display their competence in more isolated settings. They also can create situations in which people are more apt to like one another, whatever their individual qualities. When people need help completing complex projects, they select the colleagues best able to do the job—not just those they like.
This has big implications for your organization. Good things happen when people who like each other collaborate—projects flow quickly; people gladly help each other. Apply this three-pronged strategy:. Your payoff? Avid collaboration, copious sharing of knowledge and expertise, and exceptional performance throughout your organization.
Widely liked people are frequently unexceptional performers. But their ability to cultivate positive working relationships between diverse groups can generate enormous value for your organization. To get the most from them:. Link rewards for skilled but unpleasant people to their willingness to improve their social skills.
One investment banker who was charming to potential clients but not to coworkers was denied a promotion to a managing director position. Also use coaching: explain how off-putting behavior is self-defeating. Provide immediate feedback when you see such behavior, rather than waiting for a year-end performance review.
People are brought together because they have the variety of skills that, in concert, are needed to carry out a complex activity. But this variety inevitably leads to fragmentation of the organization into silos of specialized knowledge and activity.
How do you ensure that relevant information gets transferred between two parts of an organization that have different cultures? How do you encourage people from units competing for scarce corporate resources to work together? How do you see to it that the value of a cross-functional team is more, not less, than the sum of its parts? The answers to such questions lie not in an examination of organization charts but largely in an understanding of informal social networks and how they emerge.
Certainly, organizations are designed to ensure that people interact in ways necessary to get their jobs done. But all kinds of work-related encounters and relationships exist that only partly reflect these purposefully designed structures. Even in the context of formal structures like cross-functional teams, informal relationships play a major role. In this article, we offer somewhat surprising insights into how informal networks take shape in companies—that is, how people choose those they work with.
We then discuss some of the benefits and drawbacks of this phenomenon and offer ways for managers to mitigate its negative effects and leverage the positive ones. When given the choice of whom to work with, people will pick one person over another 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. The other is likability Is Joe enjoyable to work with? Obviously, both things matter. Less obvious is how much they matter—and exactly how they matter. To gain some insight into these questions, we studied four organizations selected to reflect a wide range of attributes—for-profit and nonprofit, large and small, North American and European. We asked people to indicate how often they had work-related interactions with every other person in the organization.
We then asked them to rate all the other people in the company in terms of how much they personally liked each one and how well each did his or her job. Who Is Liked? To test our theory of work relationships, we conducted a series of social network surveys at four organizations: an entrepreneurial technology company in Silicon Valley, a unit of a multinational IT corporation, a U. We also surveyed a large group of MBA students at a U. In all, we collected data about more than 10, work relationships.
We conducted multiple studies for two reasons. First, we wanted to see if the findings would remain consistent across different industries, types of organizations, and national cultures. Second, we wanted to see if the findings would remain consistent if we used different measures of likability, competence, and work-related interaction.
Although our results clearly were limited to the five groups we studied, the consistency of the findings on both counts was striking. Our analysis of the responses took into account biases often present when someone is asked to rate other people. We corrected, for instance, for the fact that some people are generally very generous with their ratings and others are very stingy.
We took into account the fact that people working in the same department or in the same part of the building would naturally interact more frequently, regardless of liking or competence. We were able to disentangle this overlap in our analysis, as well. For details of our statistical approach, see our working paper at www. These archetypes are caricatures, of course: Organizations usually—well, much of the time—weed out both the hopelessly incompetent and the socially clueless.
Still, people in an organization can be roughly classified using a simple matrix. If you were faced with the need to accomplish a task at work, what sort of person would you pick to help you—someone able to get the job done or someone enjoyable to be around?
Our research showed not surprisingly that, no matter what kind of organization we 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. But despite what such people might say about their preferences, the reverse turned out to be true in practice in the organizations we analyzed. Personal feelings played a more important role in forming work relationships—not friendships at work but job-oriented relationships—than is commonly acknowledged.
They were even more important than evaluations of competence. By contrast, if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer. Generally speaking, a little extra likability goes a longer way than a little extra competence in making someone desirable to work with.
If someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer. But why do so many others claim that to be the case? Yet is such a choice unprofessional? Is it a mistake to steer clear of the competent jerk when we have a job to do? Sometimes, yes.
We may even shun the jerk simply to deny him the satisfaction of lording his knowledge over us. Sometimes it can be difficult to pry the needed information from the jerk simply because he is a jerk.
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. Furthermore, in order to learn, you often have to reveal your vulnerabilities, which also may be difficult with the competent jerk—especially if you are afraid of how this might affect your reputation in his eyes or in the eyes of others to whom he may reveal your limitations.
By contrast, the lovable fool may be more likely to freely share whatever albeit modest information or skills he has and, without any intention of gaining an advantage, help others put them to use. Some people are liked pretty much universally. This distinction is important to keep in mind as we try to manage this tendency of people to favor likability over competence in their choice of work partners.
Social psychologists have long known that we like people who are similar to us; people we are familiar with; people who have reciprocal positive feelings about us; and people who are inherently attractive, either in their appearance or their personality—that is, they are considerate, cheerful, generous, and so on.
Each of these sources of personal likability can contribute, for better or worse, to the formation of an informal network. That we like people who are similar to us—for example, in their background, their beliefs, their interests, their personal style—is one of the most solidly documented findings in the social sciences.
After all, these people make us feel good because they reaffirm the validity of our own characteristics and attitudes. We also like to work with people who seem to like us. This can produce a virtuous circle in which everyone is more open to new ideas, more willing to help, and more trusting than would typically be the case. A similarly positive environment can be created if you work with someone who has an attractive personality—someone who is empathetic, for example, or generous.
And a person who is physically attractive? Well, in such a case, the job you do together can be, in some indefinable way, simply a bit more enjoyable than usual. One of the greatest drawbacks of choosing to work with similar people is the limited range of perspectives that a homogeneous group often brings to bear on a problem. A diverse collection of colleagues—whatever the tensions and misunderstandings that arise because of their differences—provides an array of perspectives that can lead to truly innovative approaches to accomplish-ing a task.
Even groups composed not of similar souls but merely of people who are very familiar with one another miss the chance to integrate the fresh perspective that new players bring to a project. Working with the same old colleagues can also dampen debate: People may hesitate to challenge or reject a bad idea put forward by someone they know and like. There is also an obvious downside when we gravitate toward people because they like us or because they are pleasant to work with.
One other danger of people working primarily with those they like: They may simply have a good time and get nothing done. An experienced venture capitalist recalls the case of a very capable manager who hired individuals based on his personal affinity with them. We offer three basic approaches. First, where possible, manufacture liking in critical relationships. Second, carefully position universally likable people so they can bridge organizational divides.
When People Would Rather Work with Competent Jerks Than Likable Fools
That has big implications for every organization—and not all of them are negative. When looking for help with a task at work, people turn to those best able to do the job. New research shows that work partners tend to be chosen not for ability but for likability. Of course, everybody wants to work with the lovable star, and nobody wants to work with the incompetent jerk. More interesting is that people prefer the lovable fool over the competent jerk.
Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks
You can fill a room with studies on leadership that hail the importance of being a likable, honest, caring, and modest boss. When people have a chance to choose whom to work with, and their own success depends in part on those people, a new study finds that cold competence becomes more important and likability less so. When money is on the line, in other words, most people would rather work for a very competent jerk than a nice but less competent boss. But if you look at actual leaders, that describes nobody running either a company or the government. The participants were asked to imagine that they were investment bankers who had to decide between four competing job applicants. In a separate study, Stanford students were put into what they thought was a real-life situation.