Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Economist on jerks, fools, and SNA

The Economist also noted the competent jerks and lovable fools I mentioned in my last post. In the same article they include a great quote on the SNA craze, "re-evaluating jolly types who spend long hours hanging around water coolers is currently fashionable," before segueing neatly to Ron Burt. See "The Jerk at Work: Wise Enough to Play the Fool?"


Anonymous said...

The jerk at work

Wise enough to play the fool?
Jun 2nd 2005
From The Economist print edition

In praise of lovable bunglers

IT IS a universal dilemma. What to do with the jerk at work, the person who is so disliked by their colleagues that no one wants to work with them? The traditional answer is to tolerate them if they are at least half-competent—on the grounds that competent jerks can be trained to be otherwise, while much-loved bunglers cannot.

An article in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review suggests that such an approach seriously underestimates the value of being liked. In a study of over 10,000 work relationships at five very different organisations, Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo, academics at Harvard Business School and the Fuqua School of Business respectively, found that (given the choice) people consistently and overwhelmingly prefer to work with a “lovable fool” than with a competent jerk.

The authors suggest that as well as training jerks to be more charming—although “sadly there are people who are disliked because they are socially incompetent, and probably never will be truly charming”—companies should also “leverage the likeable”. Amiable folk should be turned into “affective hubs”, people who can bridge gaps “between diverse groups that might not otherwise interact”.

Re-evaluating jolly types who spend long hours hanging round water-coolers is currently fashionable. Ronald Burt, a sociologist at the University of Chicago and a leading proponent of “social capital”—an explanation of “how people do better because they are somehow better connected with other people”—has written a book (“Brokerage and Closure”, to be published by the Oxford University Press later this summer) in which he describes the “clusters” and “bridges” that are typical of organisations' informal networks. Mr Burt calls the people who form bridges between clusters “brokers”; they resemble Ms Casciaro's and Mr Sousa Lobo's affective hubs. In practice, Mr Burt has found that brokers do better than people without the social skills to cross the spaces between clusters.

A book published in English this week, but already a cause célèbre in France, portrays most employees as fools—lovable or otherwise. Corinne Maier's “Bonjour Laziness” (Pantheon Books) is a worm's-eye view of a corporate world where only three creatures exist: sheep (“weak and inoffensive”); pests (“poisoning the general atmosphere”); and loafers (“their only aim is to do as little as possible”). In the view of Ms Maier, a practising psychoanalyst as well as a part-time employee of EDF, a French power firm, pests (ie, jerks) rule the corporate world. (So does being a jerk give you the skills needed to get to the top? And only in France?) The rest can only hope to lie low and await their pension. Les Misérables! But, assuming you are lovable, far better, surely, to follow the Burt route: head straight for the water-cooler.

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