RESEARCH
  • Managing people

Why Competent Jerks Get Hired

Companies should avoid the mistake of promoting competent but unsociable employees

 

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Despite overwhelming evidence that ‘jerks’ in the workplace undermine the success of a team or organization, they continue to be hired. New research explains why, when financial rewards are at stake, decision makers value competence over sociability — which is a long-term mistake.

The ideal candidates for a new job are highly competent and highly sociable. They are knowledgeable and skilled in their fields while at the same time have collegial and easy to work with personalities. Nobody is perfect, however, and many candidates will be stronger on one dimension than the other — they will come across as either highly competent or highly sociable. This means that hiring managers must decide which trade-off between competence and sociability is more advantageous.

In a team environment, the decision is not an easy one. For example, team members who may be unable to work well with others may not be given strong consideration despite the fact that they may be highly competent in their field.

To shed some light on the trade-off between sociability and competence research by Peter Belmi, Assistant Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at the Darden School of Business, and Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, focuses on whether competence or sociability is more desirable in one specific context — when the choice can impact one’s own pay, bonus, or reward (i.e. interdependent rewards). In other words, the study asks the question: would you rather work with a more sociable person or a more competent person if your compensation depends in part on their work?

In their research, Belmi and Pfeffer demonstrate that when interdependent rewards are involved, people would much rather work with competent colleagues, even if those individuals are not warm or friendly. The study also reveals the psychological process that leads to these preferences. When interdependent rewards are at stake, decision makers will have a much more narrow, instrumental focus; that is, a mind-set coolly focused on ‘what decision is best for me in the long run?’ When people are in this mindset, they often come to the conclusion that a not-so-nice but competent colleague is better than a very nice but less competent one.

The harm that leaders who intimidate and bully their employees or employees whose abrasive personalities and inability to work with others undermine their teams is well documented. What is less understood is why these types of leaders and employees continue to be hired and promoted. This research provides a partial answer: when one’s personal gain — from team rewards to stock value — is involved, sociability takes a back seat to competence. And unfortunately, the more forceful candidates for the job are often seen as more competent.

This research thus offers a somewhat cautionary note to hiring managers and decision-makers: do not let the presence of interdependent rewards psychologically push the importance of sociability to a back burner. As the researchers note, discounting the importance of interpersonal skills in job candidates inevitably leads to long-term problems. To avoid this issue, they suggest that hiring managers be trained on the long-term value of ‘soft skills’ — for the ability to ‘get along’ with others is just as important as competence for successful long-term performance.

That said, this study does offer some guidance in how to give the best impression when needed. In a job interview, for example, is it better to highlight cool confidence or warm sociability in an interview? The answer: it depends. If the job situation is based on interdependent rewards, highlighting your competence might be more effective. If the job situation is based on individual performance, however, highlighting your sociability might make a more favourable impression.

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Access the research paper: The Effect of Economic Consequences on Social Judgment and Choice: Reward Interdependence and the Preference for Sociability versus Competence. Peter Belmi and Jeffrey Pfeffer.  Journal of Organizational Behaviour (April 2018).


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