Leadership & Management

When People Would Rather Work with Competent Jerks Than Likable Fools

When money is on the line, a new study finds, people give less weight to social warmth.

November 07, 2018

| by Edmund L. Andrews


A manager, standing among his employees, points at one of them during a meeting. Credit: iStock/Thomas_EyeDesign

Sure, we want the amiable, good natured boss — unless it affects our economic success. | iStock/Thomas_EyeDesign

You can fill a room with studies on leadership that hail the importance of being a likable, honest, caring, and modest boss.

In the work world, however, that’s not what people want most. 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.

“It should be obvious, but it’s not,’’ says Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, who coauthored the study with Peter Belmi at University of Virginia. “If you believe the literature, you’re supposed to be honest, modest, and authentic. But if you look at actual leaders, that describes nobody running either a company or the government. It isn’t Jack Welch, or Larry Ellison, or Steve Jobs. It’s not Donald Trump.”


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. If you’re looking for a surgeon, you don’t ask about personality.
Jeffrey Pfeffer

To be clear, Pfeffer is not arguing that companies should hire obnoxious bullies just because they’re ruthlessly competent. In fact, the study cautions that ignoring the value of “soft contributions,” such as the ability to foster collaboration, can undermine a team’s performance in the long run.

What Pfeffer is saying, however, is that people are surprisingly hardheaded, analytical, and “instrumental” about sizing up work partners and bosses. In a trio of studies, he and Belmi show that this is especially the case in situations where a person’s compensation depends on the performance of his or her teammates.

“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.”

In the new paper, Pfeffer and Belmi focused on how “reward interdependence” affects people’s preferences for competence versus likability.

In one experiment, for example, the researchers surveyed 443 working adults over Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. The participants were asked to imagine that they were investment bankers who had to decide between four competing job applicants.

Overall, 77% said they would prefer the candidate who had been described as “highly competent” but “not very warm, friendly, or sociable.” Only 23% preferred the candidate described as “not very competent” but very sociable.

That preference for competence over social warmth was higher, at 83%, for people who were told that their pay would depend in part on the performance of their entire team. By contrast, just 71% of those whose pay was based only on their own performance put the priority on competence.

In a separate study, Stanford students were put into what they thought was a real-life situation. They were told that they’d be paid to participate in a series of lab experiments and that they would spend “quite a bit of time” with their partners over the next five weeks. Then they were asked about the kind of partner they’d prefer.

As in the other experiment, the students were also divided between an interdependent group, where each person’s pay would depend in part on the team’s performance, and a second group, where pay would be based only on individual performance.

Here, the contrasts were even more striking. Fully 72% of those in the interdependent group picked competence over sociability, while 59% of the students in the independent group picked sociability over competence.

Pfeffer says that makes sense.

“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,” he 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.”

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