Tuesday, 28 July 2009


Jerks, fools and the nice, competant ones

A quiet patch and a chance to continue clearing through some of the mountains of paper accumulated over the years, in the belief that if I kept something then it must have been with the hope of its being of use to someone, some time. Here is a jolly example, taken from a yellowed and water-damaged cutting from the The Times of three years ago (though of course available to readers of Conductive World now pristine fresh through the Internet archive).

It comes from the (usually) excellent weekly column 'Science Notebook', by Anjana Ahuja.

I cut it out because three years ago I still maintained an interest in the internal workings of organisations.

Ms Ahuja was reporting on a paper by Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo, then recently published in the Harvard Business Review. Surprise, surprise, the HBR is not an open-source journal, though it does provide the opening page of the article as a taster!

Pulling together or pulling apart?

The authors were concerned with how organisations fragmentise into 'silos of specialized knowledge and activity'. Even three years ago it was 'an understatement to say that resolving this tension is crucial to success in today’s knowledge-based and collaborative business environment'. They then posed some questions familiar even to people who work in small organisations.

  • How do you ensure that relevant information gets transferred between two parts of an organization that have different cultures?
  • How do you encourage people from units competing for scarce corporate resources to work together?
  • How do you see to it that the value of a cross-functional team is more, not less, than the sum of its parts?
They posited that answers lie not in organizational charts, more in understanding informal social networks and how these emerge.

Their article was concerned with one aspect of processes involved it this.

Four archetypes

The authors posited four archetypes, based upon the assumption that most people will chose whom they prefer to work with on two bases: competence (Does she know what she’s doing?) and likability and competence (Is she enjoyable to work with?).

Archetypes, caricatures, yes, but most people do seem to be able to fit most of their colleagues into one of four boxes.

Try it for yourself:

  • the competent jerk, who knows a lot but is unpleasant to deal with;
  • the lovable fool, who doesn’t know much but is a delight to have around;
  • the lovable star, who’s both smart and likable; and
  • the incompetent jerk, who…well, that’s self-explanatory.

The authors did, within four organisations selected for variability, profit and nonprofit, large and small, North American and European.

Our research showed (not surprisingly) that, 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.

At this point the free read on the HBR website runs dry, but Anjana Ahuja has summarised some salient points.

'When it came to deciding between a competent jerk and a lovable fool, ' she wrote, 'the management mantra that ability trumps personality was not borne out' quoting Casciaro and Lobo:

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, colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence.

It may not always be unprofessional to favour the jester over the jerk, she continued, ' Brainstorming and similar interactions might be difficult and unproductive with a jerk; he may discover your weaknesses and use them against you.

'What of the competent jerk?' she conclused,' Try shifting him to a more independent role, where he won’t annoy colleagues. Consider discussing, tactfully, his social skills at his annual appraisal. Lastly, embrace the lovable fool. Turn such people into “affective hubs” — chain them to the water cooler so they can bridge gaps between disparate departments. After all, those likeable idiots might just be your company’s best asset.'

Conductive Education today

Today's CE organisations are often operating very close to the brink and need every bit of edge that they can muster to stay in the game. The interesting insights offered three years ago by Casciaro and Lobo solve nobody's problems but they do give cause for thought.

Draw yourself a simple 2 x 2 matrix and put in a few names...


Ahuja A. (2005) Sits vac: likable idiot wanted. Apply now near the water cooler, The Times,27 June
It seems that even Times on Line can have the same problems over font size and paragraph spacing lurking within its system as does Conductive World. I suppose that there's some comfort there!

Casciaro, T., Lobo, M. S. (2005) Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks, Harvard Business Review, June

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