Playing well with others

26 Jan

I’ll never forget a Harvard Business Review article I read years ago. I don’t remember the author, or the exact title – someday I’ll try to find it – but its message was indelible. The story talked about four social quadrants in the workplace: people you like who are competent at their job, people you like who are not competent, people you don’t like who are competent, and people you don’t like who are not competent. Those probably aren’t the exact terms the author used, but the general idea is the same.

The reason why I remember the article so well? Surprisingly, most employees would prefer working with a coworker they like who is NOT competent, rather than working with someone they don’t like who is competent. (At the top of the heap is obviously “someone I like/someone who is competent.”)

Ronald Alsop’s Wall Street Journal article “Playing Well with Others” brought it all back to me. So you think just because you have an MBA from a top-tier school people will want to work with you? According to the Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive poll Alsop cites, communication and interpersonal skills, and the ability to work well in teams, are the top attributes MBA recruiters are looking for.

Reading between the lines of the article, you can see the problem: Highly quantitative student with 780 GMAT score gets into top business school. But has this person learned to communicate? Has this person learned to work in a non-competitive way alongside others? Does he or she even know how to write?

The article talks about the importance of interpersonal and leadership skills, and the need to develop those in students, along with the ability to communicate. However, this raises the question: How do we quantify interpersonal and leadership skills? Yes, there are such measures such as The Leadership Practices Inventory, but have we gone far enough?

The mention in the article – which was published in 2002 – of business ethics was somewhat chilling. At that time, post-Enron, business ethics were a hot subject. Sadly, the lack of focus in business schools on ethics dating even further back than 2002 probably played a major role in the recent economic meltdown. Obviously, it should been an even more important area of focus now than it was then.

Another Alsop article, “How to Get Hired,” further highlights the need for strong writing and communication skills, along with the ability to check one’s ego. As an MBA candidate with a more qualitative than quantitative focus, I lapped it up.

Luckily, my past work experiences have already taught me some of the skills he mentions, such as learning to appreciate and work well with employees at all levels. As a marketer, I sometimes received my best ideas from front-line staff. For example, one of my projects was to create a guide to the patient experience at the hospital. The very best source of information was the receptionist who worked at the front information desk. She knew exactly which questions patients and families had most: When is the cafeteria open? Where is the mailbox? How do I get phone calls? She understood their needs. Her day-to-day experience answering thousands of questions uniquely qualified her to shape this publication, yet no one had ever thought to ask her input before.


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