which matters more: skills or personality?

A reader writes:

I was hoping you could sort of a disagreement I’ve been having with a friend about workplace culture. Both of us are entry level professionals in our first “real” jobs out of university. He thinks that personality and feelings are completely irrelevant to work, and he would be happy to hire someone who was highly skilled but antisocial, unfriendly, and even rude over someone slightly less skilled but easy to get along with. I feel the opposite: I would greatly prefer to work with a team of positive people who might not be 100% competent, but who work well together and are friendly and sociable.

My friend recently had an experience at his new office that he found extremely unpleasant, which surprised me, because it’s something that I would personally appreciate. His new boss took him out (just the two of them) for a mostly-social, semi-work related coffee during the work day, and seemed to be trying to get to know him a little better personally. I don’t need to be best friends with the people I’m working with/for, nor do I compulsively fill my work emails with smiley faces and exclamation points, but I can’t see the harm in being personable and knowing a little bit about who I’m working with. I enjoy work much more when I’m working with people who I genuinely like. Is that strange?

No, it’s not strange.

But we need to break your categories down a little more. The first category — “antisocial, unfriendly, and even rude” lumps things together that are too different. Antisocial isn’t the same as rude. Rude is unacceptable, but not being especially extroverted or social is completely fine in most jobs. And the second category suffers from a similar problem: Easy to get along with and working well with others are both things you should want in an employee, but that doesn’t mean that people have to be particularly social if they’d rather not. There are great employees along all parts of the socializing spectrum.

So I’m going to change your framing a bit. I think you’re really asking this question: Is it better to hire for hard skills or soft skills (i.e., interpersonal skills)? And the answer there is … Hire for both. The choice isn’t between hiring someone competent and hiring someone with interpersonal skills; most employers are able to hire people who fit both categories.

That said, there’s a popular business saying that you should hire for attitude and train for skills. The thinking, of course, is that you can train someone to sell your product or use a software program, but you can’t train them to be warm and friendly to customers, or communicate well, or take initiative, or have a work ethic — so you should hire for that untrainable stuff and then train them to do what you need. The problem with that concept is that it only applies in certain types of jobs, particularly entry-level roles or service roles. It doesn’t really work for lots of other roles — in many jobs, you really need someone who comes in already having a certain baseline of skills, and that’s increasingly true as roles become more senior. You’re not going to hire a CFO or a project manager just because they’re great with people, after all. In those roles, you need the soft skills and the hard skills. And there’s no reason you have to choose, just like there’s no reason you have to choose between hiring someone smart or someone trustworthy. You should want (and can generally get) both.

Now, back to your friend, who found it extremely unpleasant that his new boss took him out for coffee to get to know him better. This is a very normal thing for managers to do. I’d have your friend’s back if his manager was constantly wanting to have lunch or happy hour with him, or regularly expecting him to show up at workplace social events, but a single rapport-building coffee? Or even a monthly coffee? He’s going to encounter that throughout his career, and it’s going to serve him well if he just approaches it as a normal part of working in a professional setting.

(For what it’s worth, you might have some recalibration to do on your side too. I might be nitpicking here, but “compulsively filling your work emails with smiley faces and exclamation points” isn’t going to help you to be seen as a professional with gravitas in most offices. And yes, that’s the goal — even though it can take a while when you’re right out of school to realize that. You can do “professional with gravitas” while also being warm and friendly; you’ve just got to get the balance right.)

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