Sunday, August 23, 2015

The importance of communicating well and working well with others

In an earlier post on HR departments and hiring, I considered whether it's ever appropriate to discriminate against people on the basis of personality:

Should corporations never discriminate against people on the basis of personality? Ironically, the personality type that thrives best in interviews--particularly the informal ones that are so popular today--is the type that is potentially the most toxic of all: the narcissistic, manipulating backstabber who charms his superiors, undermines his equals, and takes credit for the work of his underlings, advancing through the corporation and undermining morale and productivity. 
Given just how toxic the psychopathic employee can be for the workplace, one can appreciate how important it is to consider personality and social behavior. The problem, though, is that people often conflate two different types of socially problematic personalities:

(1) jerks
(2) people who mean well--or at least don't mean ill--but are socially awkward.

Personality does matter, but the aspect that matters most is decency, not charm.

In reading the comments on my earlier post, I've realized that two other general factors that seem important in making hiring decisions can be bifurcated in similar ways.

Anonymous/bj writes:
the ability to communicate and work with others is being shown to be an important part of successful performance of many jobs, including the ones that include significant technical skills.
As with personality, so, too, with the ability to communicate and the ability to work with others. Each has a more social aspect, and a more job-relevant aspect. For the former:

(1) conversational skills; being fun to talk to
(2) content-based communication skills: understanding directions, getting your points across clearly.

For the latter:

(1) getting along with people socially; behaving such that they enjoy your company
(2) understanding what your role is in a collaboration and being competent and conscientious enough to fulfill it.

The more job-relevant aspects of communication and working with others aren't trivial. A programmer on a software development team I was part of--someone who appeared to have gotten hired in part because he was a drinking buddy of one of the team leaders--set us back about a year (and many paychecks worth of funds) because it turned out he wasn't able to follow our directions or communicate what was confusing to him. I'm sure he was fun to hang out with after hours at bars. A lawyer friend of my regularly laments how her firm hires "team players" who don't pull their weight because, for all their Ivy League training, they're lacking in reading and writing skills.

Maybe I'm insufficiently "21st Century" in my thinking, but I'd take a decent, competent coworker who understands directions and can get his or her point across clearly, however socially awkwardly, over someone who's engaging to talk to and fun to be around but, like so many people these days, is a sloppy, inaccurate reader; an inarticulate writer; an inattentive listener; a poor follower of complex directions; and a lazy, responsibility-deflecting coworker--even if s/he isn't also a manipulative, backstabbing psychopath.


Anonymous said...

Your remark about desiring a competent coworker reminds me of when I was serving on the board of a private high school that was in the process of making itself over into a more rigorous academic institution. In coming up with a new mission statement, we were looking for adjectives that described the type of students we wished to produce--creative and curious were in there, for example. I suggested "competent" and it was put in a draft version that was floated in a focus group of parents. The focus group had reservations about the word competent because it suggested that our students were "merely" competent. Only one person pointed out that competent employees are rare and worth their weight in gold. Anyway, the word competent was removed and replaced by something alluding to contributing positively to the world. Apparently competence is vastly underrated.

lgm said...

I will not work with a woman hater, a racist, or a sociopath.
I do not care how expert they are, they are toxic in a team environment.
The incompetent and the nepotism hires can be given sideline roles.

lgm said...

I should refine that statement for the woman haters and racists to say 'if they bring their hatred to work' or for the sociopath ' if they havent been trained to social norms or if they have been trained and do not agree to use them'. Obviously if it was a sheltered workshop I would have no objection.

Hainish said...

lgm, I think you mischaracterize sociopaths. The problem isn't that they ignore social norms, it's that they have few scruples about harming others for their own gain. They're often very attuned to social norms, and use them in their own favor.

Anonymous said...

Incompetence paired with other skills (either the ability to communicate content effectively or to be a socially personable colleague, . . ) is still incompetence. The question is whether many jobs will require both (or more skills -- a substance skill, like, say, surgical skills or the ability to hit a baseball, and the ability to communicate).

And, I do not believe that skills need trade off for each other in any required physiological sense ( in spite of the stereotype of the awkward computer scientist or mathematician). As the world changes and those skills become more important, it becomes possible to find the excellent computer scientist who is also fun to be with (and, actually, the excellent pitcher who is also an effective communicator and entertainer). Will they be more of an asset to your company than the computer scientist who doesn't have social skills? Yes, unless they actually lack CS skills. And, depending on the job, they could be more of an asset than someone who has better raw computer skills than them.

At some point, this choice does become a discussion of protected classes. Say, it's possible that a white computer programmer will be more effective at the job than a asian computer programmer, and you're still not allowed to chose white people for that job -- and the same may be true of some communication disabilities for some jobs. But, if we're talking about the normal ranges of human variability, there's no reason to presume that a sociable person will be less competent, and, if they're not, they are an asset.


Anonymous said...

This article says what I was trying to say, and with a working paper:

"Training in mathematics, computer science and other STEM fields (what Deming would count as “high cognitive skills”) is still a great investment; that “plugging away at a spreadsheet” is still valuable. “High-cognitive-skills workers still earn more,” Deming said, “but social skills increasingly are a complement to cognitive skills.” He argues that having strong cognitive skills is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a high-paying job."

They cite technology as the reason --

"Social skills have become more important for workers because they provide a crucial advantage over a frequent competitor: technology"


Emily said...

Has someone at The Onion been reading this blog?