All in the same boat: Teamwork theory in the 153rd boat race

April 6, 2007

_41514288_cambridgesad203.jpg_41514106_oxford2203.jpgOdds-on favorites Cambridge University lost last year’s boat race against ancient rivals Oxford. This year, the light-blues have been advised to follow Business School theories for coping with the heady mix of individual ambitions and team spirit. We assess whether the ideas hold water.

Last year Cambridge lost the annual varsity bragging rights on the Thames. Defeat sometimes sharpens the appetite for new ideas. According to this week’s Economist, Cambridge Coach Duncan Holland has been assisted by Mark de Rond from Cambridge’s Judge Business School.

Mark is an American strategy theorist who is tipping his toe into more behavioral waters here (I can’t get away from aquatic imagery at the moment). The article goes on to mention a recent idea on how members of organizational work teams relate to one another.

Competent Jerks and loveable fools

The basic idea, by Casciano and Lobo, originated in the prestigious Harvard Business Review last June. Their work examines the relationships between managers with differing levels of competence and of likeability. Details of the work can be found in a summary by AsiaOne Business:

The authors studied four organisations – one which is profit-motivated, one non-profit, another large and the fourth, small. No matter which organisation they studied, they found that everybody wanted to work with a lovable star and nobody wanted to work with an incompetent jerk. They say things got more interesting when people faced the choice between competent jerks and lovable fools … surprise, surprise, the two researchers found out that the reverse was true in the four companies they analysed.

“Personal feelings played a more important role in forming work relationships – not friendships at work, but job-oriented friendships – than is commonly acknowledged, even more important than evaluations of competence.”
The competent jerks represent an opportunity for the organisation because so much of their expertise is discounted.

Evaluation of the research: The popularity of the ‘two-by-two matrix’

The research study is presented in the form of the two-by-two matrix. As a teaching and diagnostic tool the two-by-two is among the most popular ways of helping people escape the ‘either-or’ trap and think in more dimensions. After a while the experienced management trainer becomes adept at turning any relationship between two variables into a two-by-two format for teaching purposes. (Try it for yourself, if you don’t believe me).

For example, in the famous management matrix by Blake and Mouton we can explore more deeply the interplay between task-oriented and supportive preferences of leaders.

This new two-by-two contrasts high and low likeability and high and low competence. As with the Blake and Mouton matrix, this immediately makes sense to many people. The four boxes are nicely labeled. The simple idea simply expressed has another nice wrinkle. It gets to the trade-offs and dilemmas when people have to chose between workmates they believe to be one or two dimensions short of being a likeable and competent star.

Will the model stand the test of time?

Casciano and Lobo have got their idea off to a good start. It has every chance of being a fashionable concept which works its way into Organizational Behavior (and Organisational behaviour) textbooks. After which there is a mimetic force at work. Does the theory extend or challenge sound organizational theory? Not really, but that is to be ungracious. At least, it has several features of earlier successful ‘thought leadership’ stories. The publication in the prestigious Harvard Business Review will do its prospects no harm.

Will it help Cambridge win the boat race?

I can’t quite see it. In the boat race, the rowers have all already have been selected as highly competent. There’s no rowing incompetent among the candidates for the top boat. Actually, the article implied that there was, mentioning one rower who is a not the technically most-gifted and yet who is much liked and a motivational character. I’m not sure how the Cambridge business coach got that message across (unless, of course he is himself a highly competent and likeable star; neither a competent jerk nor a likeable fool).


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