CEOs win by hiring networkers, not competent jerks

Lovable stars and incompetent jerks are easy but what about the other options?

Do people skills trump competence or vice versa? Obviously having both helps a person be a star, and having neither makes them an easy choice for dismissal. But what about people-people with few hard skills, or highly competent individual contributors who no one can stand? Which do successful businesses choose, and which do they think they choose?

My favorite study on this subject was published in the Harvard Business Review a few years ago. They studied a set of successful European companies and executives and asked a very similar question.

no matter what kind of organization we studied, everybody wanted to work with the lovable star, and nobody wanted to work with the incompetent jerk. Things got a lot more interesting, though, when people faced the choice between competent jerks and lovable fools.
Graphic by author
We found that if someone is strongly disliked, it’s almost irrelevant whether or not she is competent; people won’t want to work with her anyway. By contrast, if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer. And this tendency didn’t exist only in extreme cases; it was true across the board. Generally speaking, a little extra likability goes a longer way than a little extra competence in making someone desirable to work with.

What becomes important in context of this is the social network aspect. Competent jerks frequently have only their own competence to rely upon, but likable people have much greater social leverage to be able to rely upon the competence of others. To extend this to 7 Habits territory, your sphere of influence can be much greater through someone who is liked than someone who is merely personally competent. Your social graph and hence your ability to perform is improved by connecting through the person with more connections.

Graphic by author

Visually, this is an oversimplification, but Jack in red has no social connections even though he knows everything about, for example, the RJ11 protocol. John, in green, has tremendous social connections and likely knows someone who will tell him everything he needs to know, or even give him the useful answer to enable him to be more competent.

And of course one of the takeaways from this is that you shouldn’t believe what people tell you about how they operate, but observe what they actually do. It’s quite possible that they are highly competent for reasons other than the ones that they understand to be true.

Please note: gender-specific pronouns switch back and forth between genders throughout the Harvard Business Review article. It was published before the gender neutral ‘they’ was commonly used.