Able Versus Amiable

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2006

Are you a likable employee? How much does it matter to you if your boss is a kind woman? Would you rather work with someone who knows what he is doing but is a jerk? Or would you rather be on a project with someone who might be a bit clueless but reeeeally nice?

According to research on this topic (yes, really), a person's likability is an important factor when it comes to being hired, promoted or able to rally workplace troops.

In other words, Dilbert's boss is doomed. His bad attitude means his employees won't bend over backwards to help him. But if he were likable -- well, maybe Dilbert would actually get some work done.

According to a Harvard Business School study released last summer, people choose work partners based on, naturally, their competence on the job but, more notably, on their likability.

The study, which surveyed both managers and regular employees, broke these criteria into four categories of people: the competent jerk, who knows a lot but is unpleasant to deal with; the lovable fool, who doesn't know much but is great to have around; the lovable star, who's both smart and likable; and the incompetent jerk (do I even need to describe that one for you?).

The majority of respondents, of course, said they wanted to work with the lovable star, according to the research. When managers were asked which choice they would make in hiring and promotion, they said competence always trumps likability. But the research showed the opposite was true. "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," said the authors, Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo, in their research paper. "By contrast, if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer."

(Go on, you've done it: "But he's SUCH a nice guy. Do we really have to fire him? He was really good on that project seven years ago.")

Admitting that you would rather work with someone who is charming and kind than someone who is competent but jerky might feel as if you're admitting to playing along with a high school popularity contest. It might feel as if your priorities are screwed up. This is the real world, after all.

But think about it. Likability can translate into skills that jerks will never have.

"All of us don't want to admit that likability is a factor, especially when it comes to hiring," said Lucy Cherkasets, the human resources director with LaForce & Stevens, a New York marketing firm. "We always look at candidates' qualifications, but at the end of the day, you have two top candidates, and they are neck in neck, the decision turns into who would you like to work with."

Cherkasets said HR professionals try to stay "as neutral as possible," but it's important to gauge, for instance, how someone will behave on accounts. "If they don't shake your hand during the interview, that might play into [whether] you hire them," she admits. "Are they passive, cocky? Do you really want to work with them from 9 to 6? I think it's important."

Likability is so important that Tim Sanders, a former tech executive turned author, has built the latter part of his life on preaching its necessity. In his book "The Likeability Factor," he writes about -- with the support of research -- how boosting friendliness can help one succeed in life and work.

His interest stems from a lunch he had with Stanley Marcus, son of the founder of Neiman Marcus, in the late 1990s. During this lunch, Marcus and Sanders talked about how to be a good executive, as Sanders was a new one at a hot tech company in Dallas.

Sanders told Marcus all the things he was doing to prepare himself: He was trying to make himself intellectually attractive to business partners. He was trying to make himself financially attractive. Then, as they got up to leave, Marcus stopped Sanders and said, "Son, don't forget one thing: Make yourself emotionally attractive. Good things happen to people who are emotionally attractive."

That statement stuck with Sanders like no other piece of advice ever had. "When it came to making customers happy, what I gave them emotionally was just as important" as a product, he said. When his company was bought by Yahoo and he became an executive, he preached the necessity of likability. "If we became emotionally unattractive, if we became arrogant, nothing's going to matter anymore. It would not matter if we're generous with our stock options or our sick days."

The issue of likability comes into play in many ways. For instance, most surveys and studies show that more people leave their jobs because they don't like their bosses than for any other reason. "There is no one that wants to work for a jerk," said Clay Parcells, regional managing partner with Right Management Consultants. "In order for people to be engaged, they want managers to show an interest in them, help them with their career, listen to them, and do it in a real way."

Paul Villella, chief executive of HireStrategy, a Reston staffing firm, said a person's likability is a big component in hiring decisions. "It doesn't mean necessarily that person is going to become your friend," he said. "But in business, for candidate selection or potential progression within a company, it's important, because if it's a role . . . that involves interaction, you're going to be interacting with all kinds of different people."

Sure, we all know of people who are feared and disliked on a personal level but whose work has made them successful. There will always be those competent jerks. But the dark side most often won't win. Likability is more than just a smooshy nice thing to have around the office. It has a real impact on business.

"The workplace is not a popularity contest. It is about getting your job done effectively," said Peter Handal, chief executive of Dale Carnegie Training. "But you can get it done more effectively if you are likable, if you have people skills."

Join Amy from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday to discuss your life at work at You can e-mail her atlifeatwork@washpost.comwith your column ideas.

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