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Competent Jerks and Lovable Fools: The Likeability Factor at Work

Heidi LaFleche

Photo: shearforce/Flickr (CC)

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.”