If you had to choose, would you rather work with someone who’s competent or someone who’s likable? Most people who are asked this question say they prefer competence, reasoning that if the coworker is competent, they can overlook a lack of likability. But despite the apparent preference for competence, when researchers analyzed several organizations, they found that people actually favored likability. For purposes of their study, they created a matrix based on high and low likability and high and low competence. They designated the resulting four categories as being a competent jerk, lovable star, incompetent jerk, or lovable fool.
Not surprisingly, everyone in the study wanted to work with lovable stars and no one wanted to work with incompetent jerks. But what about competent jerks and lovable fools? The researchers found that if someone is strongly disliked, competence is almost irrelevant; no one wants to work with the person. By contrast, if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer. And this tendency didn't exist only in extreme cases; it was true across the board. Generally speaking, a little extra likability goes a longer way than a little extra competence in making someone desirable to work with.
Another study found that popular workers were viewed as trustworthy, motivated, serious, decisive, and hardworking. These workers were recommended for fast-track promotion and generous pay increases. On the other hand, colleagues described as less likable were perceived as arrogant, conniving, and manipulative.
Does that mean likability is the key to success? Not necessarily. A study described in the Wall Street Journal analyzed data from roughly 10,000 workers representing a wide range of professions, salaries, and ages. The study found that agreeable workers earn significantly lower incomes than less agreeable ones, with men experiencing an especially wide gap. The study was aptly titled "Do Nice Guys—and Gals—Really Finish Last?"
Despite such findings, it’s difficult to argue that likability isn’t a worthwhile quality. And maybe there’s more to likability than agreeability. In his book, The Likeability Factor, business guru Tim Sanders describes likability as a skill, suggesting that it’s something anyone who wishes to can develop or improve. Likability, in his view, entails four critical elements of your personality:
- Friendliness: your ability to communicate liking and openness to others
- Relevance: your capacity to connect with others’ interests, wants, and needs
- Empathy: your ability to recognize, acknowledge, and experience other people’s feelings
- Realness: the integrity that stands behind your likeability and guarantees its authenticity
Psychologist Roger Covin reports that when he asks his clients which qualities are most important in terms of their own likability, they list things like physical attractiveness, wealth, and social status. But when he asks these same clients which qualities they desire most in other people, they list things like honesty, trustworthiness, loyalty, and kindness.
None of this suggests that competence is unimportant in career success. Just don’t be a jerk!
FYI, both likable and likeable seem to be accepted spellings of this word. Use whichever you find more (likable)(likeable).
Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.