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Competent Jerks and Lovable Fools

The Likeability Factor at Work

Do your coworkers like you? Or do they avoid you like day-old conference-room bagels? Does it matter, as long as you’re getting the job done?

You betcha, says a  Harvard Business Review report on “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks” by Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo. Like it or not, likeability matters.

The study identified four workplace personality types:

  • Lovable star
  • Lovable fool
  • Competent jerk
  • Incompetent jerk

Managers and coworkers clearly prefer the first and avoid the last. But it gets more interesting when you must choose between the middle two. While managers say “competence trumps likeability,” the reverse seems true in practice. The report states: “Faced with a choice between a ‘competent jerk’ and a ‘lovable fool’ as a work partner, people usually opt for likeability over ability.”

What Makes a Workplace Jerk?

Jerks can turn your workplace into a “Survivor” rerun. “If you punched somebody in the parking lot, you’d be fired,” says career coach Laura Tully. “But if you withhold information from others, if you’re difficult to work with, if you obstruct others from doing their jobs, management doesn’t know how to deal with it.”

“Competent jerks are people who feel under a lot of self-imposed pressure to be the best, to get the credit, to win,” says Sharon Melnick, PhD, a professional coach and corporate trainer. “They need to prove their worth. Jerk behavior is a driven behavior, and often the person isn’t consciously aware they’re being a jerk. It seems like a do-or-die situation, because their whole self-esteem is on the line.”

Jerk Behavior

“Jerks interrupt other people, shoot down their ideas, take undeserved credit when it’s not due and insist things be done their way,” says Melnick. “They’re turf-oriented and will protect theirs and encroach on yours. If others respond by leaving them out, jerks will blame the other people.”

While some professionals “get the goodies” through relationships and connections, competent jerks “need more quantitative markers, like how much money they earned, if they got the credit, if the project went their way,” says Melnick. “Competent jerks put all their energy into being competent at the cost of relationships.”

Jerk Today, Lovable Star Tomorrow

Take a hard look in the restroom mirror: Would you want to work with you? Brutally honest self-evaluation may be needed to reinvent your bad self. Try these steps:

  • Review your performance evaluations. Take the comments to heart.

  • Ask a trusted manager or peer if you’re liked at work. If the answer is no, find out why. Too painful? Melnick suggests an anonymous survey. Ask peers to fill out an anonymous survey on SurveyMonkey. Then try to figure out who thinks you stink.

  • Reflect on your work relationships. Do people seem happy to see you? Do they respond to emails? Are you included in meetings or on projects?

  • Consider a career coach for work issues and a therapist for personal problems.

  • “Learn to listen to others,” Melnick recommends. “Go for respectful if not likeable. The best way to influence people is to ask questions and listen to their answers. The best way to get to the top is to have both skill sets, to be competent and likeable.”

Finally, discover what brings out the beast and the best in you, and pursue positive work situations. “Consider setting boundaries for the next job,” Tully says. “It never occurs to some people that they can be kind to themselves.”

Key Insight: You Don’t Work Alone

“In technology, sometimes bad behavior is tolerated,” Tully says. “Some engineers are very bright but don’t have social skills. There’s a big difference in quality of work where the engineers can talk about issues. There are few jobs where you can just sit in your cubicle and do your work alone.”

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