Which Is Better: Nice Or Competent?

And How Do Effective Managers Lead Them Both?

Oct 24, 2018

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Imagine you are assigned to complete an important project at work and must partner with a colleague. Do you choose to work with the most competent but least likeable person on the team? Or do you choose the most likeable but least competent person?

It’s a question Maryland Smith’s Nicole M. Coomber poses to students in the new MicroMasters in MBA Core Curriculum program on the edX platform. The seven-course program offers affordable, transferable credits to the Online MBA program, or a MicroMasters certificate. 

The choice between nice or competent is a quandary, Coomber says, that managers must explore as they seek to lead more effective teams. 

“Consider the rainmaker at an investment banking firm who failed to get promoted due to his poor relationships with his peers and subordinates,” she says as part of a video-recorded MicroMasters lesson. “Or the CEO who was hired to turn the firm around but was fired by the board 18 months later because she failed to understand the organizational culture. Or the brilliant programmer who can’t communicate with the client to understand their needs and never moves beyond her junior role at the firm. Or the talented consultant who can’t make managing partner because he fails at building relationships with his clients.” 

The individuals all have one thing in common: They’re all competent jerks. They’ve got skills, knowledge and abilities, she says, but they don’t work well with others.

In field tests, employees at a number of firms were asked to rate their colleagues based on likeability and competence, and then to choose which colleagues they would most like to partner with on a project. 

“Not surprisingly, everyone wanted to work with the lovable superstar and no one wanted to work with incompetent jerk,” explains Coomber, an associate clinical professor of management and organization at Maryland Smith. 

But when the loveable superstars aren’t available and the choice comes down to the competent jerks or loveable fools, she says, “the picture becomes more interesting.”

“Many said they would prefer the competent jerk, but when researchers observed behavior in the organization, however, they found many actually seemed to prefer the lovable fool.”

That’s because it can be arduous to try to collaborate with competent jerks. They often don’t communicate well or share information freely. The loveable fool, on the other hand, is open to feedback and can learn new professional skills.

“The question illustrates the conundrum that leaders at organizations face on a regular basis,” says Coomber. “And it helps them understand the importance of coaching, motivating, and ultimately leading people at an organization, for the benefit of their colleagues, their clients, and the organization themselves.”

Managers can facilitate bonding and promote familiarity with competent jerks and can also socialize and coach them. For those who are likable, they can leverage them to bridge different parts of the organization. Some individuals who simply can’t learn social skills may be able to be repositioned to roles where it is less important.




About the Expert(s)

Nicole M. Coomber

Nicole Coomber is on the faculty in the Management & Organization area at the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

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