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 one’s money is 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, recent research by Darden professor Peter Belmi and Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer focuses on whether competence or sociability is more desirable in the specific context of interdependent rewards — that is, when the choice can impact one’s own compensation or 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 not very competent one.
The research was based on three studies. The first was a survey of people in the workplace. First, the researchers asked participants how they were compensated at work — whether they were compensated based entirely on their own individual performance, or whether they were compensated, in part, based on their team’s performance as well. Then, the researchers asked these participants to imagine that they were hiring a new colleague. Participants were asked to rank four candidates who reflected four various combinations of sociability and competence (high sociability and competence, low sociability and competence, high sociability and low competence, low sociability and high competence). They then answered several questions to explain their ranking. The researchers found two things: First, they found that employees in more reward interdependent environments tended to think more instrumentally than employees in less reward interdependent environment; second, they found that a narrow calculative focus was associated with choosing a competent (but unsociable individual) over a sociable (but incompetent) individual.
The second study attempted to establish causality between interdependent rewards and a preference for competence by deliberately manipulating interdependence: specifically, the researchers randomly assigned respondents to imagine working for either a low interdependent workplace or a highly interdependent workplace. The results: assignment to the highly interdependent rewards group increased respondents’ preference for competence by 12%.
The third study also examined this causality but with participants (students from a U.S. west coast university) who believed that they would actually have to work with the new colleague (as opposed to being placed in a hypothetical situation). The results: when participants were convinced their compensation would actually depend in part on others, the participants preferred even more strongly competent teammates over more sociable teammates.
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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