My wife is about to get a new boss. As part of the process staff members in her department have been invited to participate in the interview process. One of the concerns that was raised with one of the candidates was their flexibility when it came to enforcing workplace policies. She works in a high stress environment where people’s lives are literally at risk. The overwhelming opinion of her coworkers is that a new boss must be willing to accept variance from policy AND protect staff when those from outside departments take issue with minor policy violations. 

So what qualities should an effective boss have in that environment?

A new study was recently published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, The Effect of Economic Consequences on Social Judgment and Choice: Reward Interdependence and the Preference for Sociability versus Competence, that attempts to answer that question. 

The study looked to compare two basic types of organizations based on how the staff was compensated and the manager on a the basis of two specific qualities.

The two organization types were:

  1. Employees are compensated based primarily on their individual contribution to the organization.
  2. Employees are primarily compensated based on the performance of the team.

And the two manager types:

  1. A manager who is more competent and does not rate high on sociability
  2. A manager who is more sociable, but is less competent.

The study attempted to quantify this dynamic through three different experiments. In each of these experiments, those who worked in environments where compensation and bonuses were largely based on individual performance, the preference of manager types was in the following order:

  1. High competence, high sociability
  2. High competence, low sociability
  3. Low competence, high sociability
  4. Low competence, low sociability

The study found that those who worked in an organization where compensation and bonuses were largely based on the efforts of the whole team (i.e. an individual’s compensation was impacted by how others on the team performed), the preference of manager types was ordered a bit differently:

  1. High competence, high sociability
  2. Low competence, high sociability
  3. High competence, low sociability
  4. Low competence, low sociability

The interesting difference in the two groups is how the number 2 and 3 spots switched based on competence and sociability. Naturally, people want to work for competent and socially skillful individuals. And equally as relevant, no one wants to work for someone of inferior competence and lower than average social skills.

But when faced with the choice of either high competence or high sociability, how they perceived their organization’s reward structure deeply influenced which attribute they preferred.

Back to my wife’s organization, one where her compensation is based largely on factors other than her personal performance, and as her coworkers have already intimated, the new manager should be someone with high sociability to help manage the relationships between staff members and the interactions with other departments – even if that comes at the expense of competence with respect to the duties the staff perform.