The Upside of Working with a Competent Jerk

competent jerk

This article originally appeared on the Blacklight, our new newsletter for professionals.

As the saying goes, you can’t choose your family…or your coworkers, either. In multiple studies, people say they would rather work with lovable fools than accomplished a-holes. But what if your own fortunes were tied to the performance of that other person? When real money is on the line, it seems we actually prefer working with/for a highly competent jerk.

Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer and his coauthor Peter Belmi of the University of Virginia recently published a paper focused on how “reward interdependence” affected whether participants cared more about likability or competence.

They found that when your paycheck depends on a coworker’s capabilities, your first instinct is to protect your own interests. In fact, a whopping 83% of those surveyed chose competence over social warmth.

Because duh, you want your team to go to the playoffs.

Organizations hire employees for their skills and ability to improve the bottom line. Lovable fools make the workplace more enjoyable, but they can also become a liability that undermines the company’s long-term success.

“If you’re building a baseball team, you don’t care whether a player is nice — you want to know if he can hit the ball,” Pfeffer says. “If you’re looking for a surgeon, you don’t ask about personality.”

A highly competent jerk brings home the bacon, so supervisors will often overlook their EQ shortcomings. It’s worth noting that competent jerks can become socialized—niceness is a skill like any other. INSEAD Professor Miguel Lobo notes that this type of employee responds to incentives better than anyone else.

“By saying ‘Look I’m not asking you to be a nice person but having good working relationships is a skill and a professional asset like any other’. You have to make them see it as a goal they need to achieve and reward them for doing so.”

Who knows, today’s competent jerk just might become tomorrow’s lovable star.

In an ideal world, we would work only with nice people who share our beliefs and values. Last time we checked, we don’t live in an ideal world.

“If there aren’t any consequences, then of course you are going to prefer people who are likable and fit your norms of social desirability,” Pfeffer says. “But if your success depends on how well those people perform, which is the case in many organizational settings, then you’re going to emphasize competence.”

You can take that to the bank.


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