Being Friendly and Trustworthy May Trump Skill Competency When Choosing Teammates

woman smiling in a meeting at work

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Key Takeaways

  • Friendliness and trustworthiness are more highly valued than skill competency on teams.
  • Competent and trustworthy individuals were most in demand when forming teams.
  • Understanding these dynamics may assist with effectively navigating teams in the workplace.

For many individuals, working in teams is associated with experiences of othering. It may explain why a recently published study in the Journal of Management found that being friendly and trustworthy may be more valuable than skill competency when working on teams.

Through two studies with full-time first-year MBA students at a large American university, researchers found that individuals had been more likely to rely on social capital than human capital when forming teams.

Especially when many workplaces are shifting to remote operations as a result of the pandemic restrictions, this research can better inform recommendations for team-building practices when collaborating online.

Understanding the Research

In Study 1, researchers considered challenging voice as "improvement-oriented communication" that develops new ideas and questions the status quo, and supportive voice as "affirming communication" that reinforces social bonds and maintains harmony, to explore a human capital pathway.

Students were placed into teams for two 7-week periods, then they were expected to assess up to three individuals for work quality and personal reputation, before forming their own teams for the 3rd 7-week period.

This research supported hypotheses that challenging voice was positively associated with personal reputation while perceptions of work quality partially mediated this effect with statistical significance and that individuals were more likely to form teams based on personal reputations.

With support for a human capital pathway (i.e., challenging voice → quality work perceptions → personal reputation) from Study 1, Study 2 explored a social capital pathway (i.e., supportive voice → friendship → trust) alongside the human capital pathway by replicating its design with a larger sample.

Researchers found that individuals with a challenging voice are seen as producing high-quality work, but this perception does not affect personal reputation when the social capital pathway is introduced as, individuals form teams with those they consider to be trustworthy rather than competent.

This research also indicated that individuals are likely to seek multiple positive attributes, in the case of assembling teams with those who they perceive to possess both human and social capital, i.e. trust and skill.

A limitation of this study was its singular focus on the positives of voice, so its results may be skewed by the possibilities of how challenging voice "rocks the boat" or supportive voice may contribute to groupthink.

Success May Depend on Relationships

Silvi Saxena, MBA, LCSW, CCTP, OSW-C, says, "I have seen this play out in the workforce. I have seen people actively avoid someone who is the expert in an area because they are abrasive or not easy to talk to or be around and ask someone else who may be ranked as a lower-level expert."

Saxena explains that people spend at least a third of their lives at work. "Being able to form relationships with our coworkers and foster those relationships into trusting ones is really crucial for success," she says.

Based on this, Saxena recommends, "Even if you are not the expert, being friendly and being able to join teams looking for that will broaden your scope and knowledge, which will make you more of an expert." 

Silvi Saxena, MBA, LCSW, CCTP, OSW-C

I have seen people actively avoid someone who is the expert in an area because they are abrasive or not easy to talk to or be around and ask someone else who may be ranked as a lower-level expert.

— Silvi Saxena, MBA, LCSW, CCTP, OSW-C

Saxena notes, "The takeaway is that friendliness shouldn't be discounted because you may need more from someone and just because someone is very competent doesn't mean they will help you or make it enjoyable."

While these research findings are applicable to the workforce, Saxena highlights that additional studies into specific examples may be helpful. "It would be great to see this research explored more with high school students or college students when individuals are becoming more of who they are and these two areas are being explored," she says. 

Saxena further explains, "It doesn't look like job satisfaction is discussed, but happier teams are more satisfied, have a better understanding of one another, and have a better chance of forming genuine friendships."

Safety May Be Worth Considering

Psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry + MindPath Care Centers, Julian Lagoy, MD, says, "Although these are both good things, in most cases it is better to be a friendly and kind person who is supportive of others than to be very competent and good at your work."

Dr. Lagoy explains, "Overall productivity, wellbeing, and happiness in the workplace is higher when you have a workplace with good people who are supportive of others, as opposed to a workplace with very competent and intelligent people who are toxic and unsupportive of their coworkers."

Despite this, Dr. Lagoy notes that competence may trump being friendly and supportive with some professions, particularly when safety is involved. "For example, I would rather have a surgeon that is competent and intelligent than a surgeon who is friendly but not as skillful as a surgeon," he says. 

Dr. Lagoy explains, "This supports the way we hire people for jobs overall. When we look at someone's resume—which is an initial reflection of someone's intelligence and competence—it helps them get the interview."

While the final hiring decision comes after the interview when you speak to them or meet them in person, Dr. Lagoy says, "In my experience, when I have interviewed people for psychiatry residency, I would prefer to hire someone I would get along with over someone who is more intelligent."

Julian Lagoy, MD

For example, I would rather have a surgeon that is competent and intelligent than a surgeon who is friendly but not as skillful as a surgeon.

— Julian Lagoy, MD

What This Means For You

As this research demonstrates, individuals may value friendliness and trustworthiness over skill competency when assembling teams. It is also worth considering how factors of oppression and power may play into these dynamics given how some tend to be seen more negatively than others based on the bodies they inhabit.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Newton DW, Chamberlin M, Maupin CK, Nahrgang JD, Carter DR. Voice as a signal of human and social capital in team assembly decisions. J Manage. 2021:014920632110313. doi:10.1177/01492063211031303

Additional Reading

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.