People Power: Why Likeability Matters More Than Competency

You’re at the end of a long hiring process, and it’s time to choose between the final two applicants. You’ve say down with them, they’ve met the team, and now you’re considering which will be the best fit.

The first candidate is certainly capable…and they know it. In fact, they made a point of telling you how much better they are than the people they’ll be working with. You’ve seen their work. You believe them. That doesn’t make them any less of a cocky jerk.

The second candidate seems suitable, but they don’t have as much experience in similar roles. It’s their personality that has ultimately got them this far; they’re charming, honest and eager.

Who do you choose?

The answer may seem obvious. As noted in a 2005 report for Harvard Business Review, researchers found that no matter the organisational structure or industry in which a business operated, the vast majority of managers would choose the jerk, citing such reasons as “I really care about the skills and expertise you bring to the table. If you’re a nice person on top of that, that’s simply a bonus”.

A leader who thinks like this is a flawed leader. Their decision is a strategic one, but one that fails to take into account the reality of the work environment.

You see, when the researchers ventured into the trenches, they saw the devastating impact of this mindset. When the capable jerk was hired, teams actively worked to keep them separate. Their ability didn’t matter; people simply didn’t want to have to collaborate with someone they didn’t like. On the other hand, the likeable clod was brought into the fold, and teams found ways to make sure their particular skills – however limited – were put to use.

It sounds unprofessional to say a business favours personality over competency. That’s possibly the reason so many managers said they value the opposite, even if they’ve been proven wrong in the past.

That’s much worse than admitting the truth. Building a team in an organisation is like building a house of cards, and those who fear sounding unprofessional are those who think a business can only built a single way. They rely on rules and structure. They are scared to work organically; scared to address why some commonly perceived truth hasn’t been proven true for them, until they lay a faulty foundation or erect a shaky support, and their house comes tumbling down.

Of course, that’s not to say the hiring process should be a popularity contest, nor that incompetence shouldn’t be addressed if an employee is found lacking. It’s one thing to hire someone because they have an intrinsic ability to bring people together, and another to hire them because they think just like you. However, discovering how to use their charm to foster stronger bonds within a team is a powerful means to producing a happier and more effective workforce.

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