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.

{ 186 comments… read them below }

  1. hayling*

    The OP’s friend seems really extreme. There are definitely people who are more focused on and care more about hard skills and soft skills, but your friend is setting himself up for a lot of difficulty in his career.

  2. PEBCAK*

    It’s a pretty big mistake to see the occasional coffee as non-work related. If the manager is any good, they will use this as a way to find out what keeps the employee happy, probe for any issues, etc. Maybe not right away, but over time, building up some trust with your employees is what leads to things like getting extra notice when they are leaving, etc.

    1. Traveler*

      Agreed. This was also a huge opportunity for the friend to express any concerns or adjustment issues that might be easier conversations to have in a more relaxed environment. I know a new job can just be awkward in general, but I think a boss like this is generally trying to be helpful.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      exactly! I want my employees to know they can talk to me if there are any issues. I don’t want it to get to the crisis point. I want to know early on what problems are festering.

    3. Laurie*

      This! I’ve been on coffee walks with my boss averaging once a week over the past several years…. Sometimes it’s just a walk, sometimes we both need coffee badly, and sometimes I ask work-related questions or questions about how to deal with certain personalities etc.

  3. Traveler*

    As a side note – Smiley faces in work emails always throw me a bit, particularly when they come from people who aren’t all that smiley/friendly in person.

    1. jmkenrick*

      I use them occasionally, but only in cases when my paranoia is such that I want it to be clear I’m asking something in a genuine, friendly (not passive-aggressive or demanding) way. And only with coworkers I interact with fairly often. Tone in e-mail can be so hard sometimes.

    2. SCW*

      My new boss has made it clear that he uses a lot of smiley faces, over uses them in fact, to make it super clear that he is not upset and not being curt, that it is a happy short e-mail. Which makes me wonder if I should read more into the absence of smileys?

  4. LouG*

    Alison, I’m confused by your last point. The OP says she does not fill her emails with smiley faces, and you responded as if she does do that. Maybe I am reading it incorrectly?

  5. Jill-be-Nimble*

    I thought that she was saying that she DIDN’T fill her work email with that, and didn’t expect anyone else to, either (as a means of coming off warm and friendly).

  6. the gold digger*

    Smiley faces no, but an email with a photo of three tiny kittens that have just been found in a barn, yes, that’s OK, as long as you already have an established professional relationship. (Because really, who wouldn’t want to see a photo of three little kitties?)

    1. LBK*

      Once I emailed a client to ask if they received something I’d sent them, they responded saying yes and attached a large picture of their cat. No context, not a client I knew personally at all.

      Weird, but not unwelcome – it was a cute cat! I actually printed the picture out and have it hung at my cube next to the pictures of my cat.

      1. Dang*

        That just made me laugh. I’m now considering using a cat picture for ‘yes’ and a dog picture for ‘no.’ People will get used to it. ;)

        1. Ornery PR*

          Awesome! I think I will try this with pictures of beverages. beer=yes, milk=no.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            I’ve used that. :)

            Also a confused cat and baby, and a Picard facepalm for when I screw up. Of course, not often, but I have a boss who sends me stuff like that occasionally herself.

      2. Lily in NYC*

        Ha! I have a coworker who routinely photoshops pictures of us so it looks like we are dressed up like characters in the musical “Cats”. I live for those emails. Of course she only does it to people she is friends with so there are never hard feelings.

      3. KrisL*

        I’m always cautious when this type of thing happens. Once someone posted an odd, non-work attachment, and it turned out to be a virus. Fortunately I was suspicious (that time) and didn’t open it.

    2. Adam*

      I occasionally use pictures as responses to easy questions. “Can you do this for me” = a thumbs up or pic of Roger from the movie Airplane! or whatever sort of mood I’m in.

      When my manager asks me to complete my regular pay time sheet my response showing I’ve finished is usually a picture of an old school cartoon like Yogi Bear.

      Granted I don’t do this with many people at my office. Maybe 4 or 5 at the most and only those I have a friendly rapport with. It just help alleviate the monotony a little.

      1. C Average*

        Yesterday I sent our sys admins a question and they redirected me to the help desk, which is never a good thing. I responded with an “OK, thanks” and, just below that, a picture of Edward Munch’s “The Scream.”

        Our sys admins are awesome and have a great sense of humor, so I knew it would be taken in the spirit in which it was offered.

        1. stellanor*

          My underlings have a weekly task they have forgotten to do every single week since it became a weekly task no matter how often I repeated I needed it done on time. I got a little fed up and reminded them in the form of an insanity wolf meme last week.

          This week is the first week everyone has remembered. Apparently that worked.

        2. MaryMary*

          At my last job, someone figured out how to add (non-sanctioned) automated emoticons into our IM system. If you typed ROFL, you got a little happy face that rolled back and forth. There was also a frowny face that turned red and exploded, one that vomited, and one that would beat its head on the side of the IM window. That pretty much covered the emotions we wanted to express

    3. Laurie*

      We send pictures of cookies when we’re really happy with something the other team did. Like, yayy thank you, here’s a cookie to celebrate!

  7. Teddy*

    Just to point out I think the OP said “NOR do I compulsively fill my work emails with smiley faces […]”

  8. cuppa*

    I was going to say that there are some skills that seem to be untrainable, or at least I’ve been unable to train them (attention to detail, thinking on one’s feet, etc.), but now I’m wondering if those should be classified as attributes/attitude as well.

    1. Rat Racer*

      According to the book Emotional Intelligence you CAN learn soft skills. I found that book to be very helpful actually – both in assessing my own strengths and weaknesses and in building those softer skills. The books I’ve read on how to become more organized have produced less profound results. Unfortunately. Maybe you’re right Cuppa and attention to detail IS untrainable (or I am just untrainable!)

      1. C Average*

        I read somewhere that the reason getting-organized books are ineffective is because they’re written by naturally organized people who think it’s as simple as sharing their approach with the chronically disorganized.

        (In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m among the chronically disorganized.)

        The solution is to find a getting-organized book by or about someone who USED TO BE disorganized but is now organized. These authors understand the chronically disorganized and the from-to journey.

        The only book I’ve read that’s really helped me is a guide for parents of ADHD children (seriously). It breaks down into great detail the organizational approach to tasks and physical spaces. It’s helped me a lot. I unfortunately don’t recall the title, but a similar book might help you.

        1. Koko*

          I think this problem (the chronically disorganized think differently from the habitual organizers) is parallel to why the “you can’t teach soft skills” maxim proliferates.

          I believe you can learn anything that you *want* to learn, whether it’s how to code or how to be a better listener. The problem is that people who can’t code can usually clearly see the advantages and benefits or learning how to code. But people who have poor listening or other people skills are often people who don’t see the value in people skills–like OP’s friend–and thus, they aren’t motivated enough to put the requisite amount of effort into learning.

        2. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

          Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern is a book by a formerly messy, disorganized person who learned to be organized. I’ve found it very useful!

  9. Gene*

    There are job where the only thing that really counts are the hard skills. My GP doctor once told me if I have ot have surgery, choose the surgeon with the worst bedside manner, because the only way he could stay in business was to be technically superior. If I’m getting programming done, I don’t care if the geek is an anti-social, puppy-hating misanthrope who eats onion garlic anchovy sandwiches for lunch if he turns out good code.

    1. Traveler*

      This might have some truth, the surgeons I’ve met that were supposed to be “the best” had really really crummy bedside manner.

    2. Observer*

      Yes, but if he’s an arrogant misogynist, then most women patients are going to get substandard care from the doctor and sub-par work from the programmer.

      With the doctor, it’s crucial – even with surgeons – that the doctor actually pay attention to the patient and get to know him or her. But people who are ride and arrogant tend not to do that, and if they have a particular prejudice, that is even more intense with anyone from that group. I’ve seen this play out, and it’s not pretty.

      If you can write a fully detailed and correct spec, and the programmer will do what you tell him without thinking about it, then sure it doesn’t make a difference what he (or she) is like. But if the programmer needs to think about the spec, or engage in any discussion, he needs to have reasonable communications skills, and enough respect to be able to really listen and pay attention to the person who is providing the spec.

      1. KellyK*

        Really, really good point. Hiring the brilliant jerk only works if that person’s interactions with others are pretty limited.

        1. thingtwo*

          My mom is a programmer, and where she works, they have people that communicate with others for her, they are called AE’s (Account Executives), so she just has to be able to communicate with the AE.

          1. Fee*

            Where I work, we’re the programmers, and we have the equivalent of your AE’s – in fact there are two to every developer. However all the developers are far better than the AE’s at doing the things described in Observer’s second paragraph – and the specs are not full detailed, nor often even correct. It’s hugely frustrating. It’s interesting in the context of this post though because I feel like a lot of the programmers have acquired those ‘soft’ skills through years of working with systems and really understanding the need to see the detail and the bigger picture, as well as thinking a few steps ahead to the consequences of designing a solution in a particular way. Whereas the ‘analysts’ seem to just contribute diagrams and flowcharts.

      2. annie*

        This is really crucial. Studies have shown that older women, especially, tend to get poorer care from medical professionals because they tend to not complain as loudly/forcefully, and/or doctors do not take their complaints seriously. My own grandmother was misdiagnosed for two years and brushed off, until she was finally correctly diagnosed with the cancer that killed her within a week. Lawyers were begging us to sue, this is sadly very common.

      3. Gloria*

        Absolutely agreed. A surgeon who’s only there to perform the operation and never see you again … fine probably. But a GP? A specialist you will see over the course of many months?

        A patient needs somebody they feel comfortable with, so it’s easier to share information which can be crucial to diagnosis and treatment. A doctor should ask the right questions, but the patient needs to feel they can participate as well.

    3. Laura*

      re: coding – this attitude explains much of the issues with diversity and gender issues going on in the tech and gaming industry right now. Too many people hiring for hard skills and completely ignoring soft skills. Social convention *is* important in the workplace, because it’s still work and not a frat house.

      1. thingtwo*

        I don’t agree, that assumes only women have soft skills, and all women have soft skills. There are male programmers that have soft skills, and female programmers that don’t. So, I really don’t think it is the reason, or at least the sole reason.

    4. Joey*

      That’s BS. How can you have a great surgery without someone that can do a good job explaining what’s going to happen to you, what to expect, and how to minimize the side affects?

      1. Bwmn*

        Doctors like surgeons, anesthesiologists, radiologists typically don’t have considerable interaction with a patient. In the case of a cancer patient requiring a tumor to be removed, there will be an oncologist who is the primary “face to face” doctor that will often provide the bulk of communication with the patient. The surgeon will not be the primary doctor the patient interacts with, and the patient may never speak directly with their radiologist or anesthesiologist.

        Now in surgery situations such as cosmetic plastic surgery, the patient does have more direct relationships with the surgeon. But that’s a field that typically self selects for surgeons with a better bedside manner.

        1. Joey*

          That’s not what we’re talking about thoug. We’re talking about doctors that can can do their job despite their bad bedside manner. Not doctors who don’t use bedside manner at all.

          1. Traveler*

            You have two choices:

            a surgeon who is rude to you in the 1o minutes of face time you will get but is the absolute best in her field

            a surgeon who is nice to you in the 10 minutes of face time you get but is second best

            either way its going to cost 20K – which do you choose?

            1. Observer*

              I’ll choose #2 – because ultimately, I’ll actually get better care.

              Real example: Dr. – surgeon – had a prejudice against the patient’s home country. So decided that the patient must really be a whiner. It showed up within about 10 minutes of starting the conversation with the doctor. I was hugely uncomfortable, but got over-ridden because he was supposed to be THE BEST. After the surgery (which the doctor never told us was not really successful) things were not going right. The doctor refused to listen to the patient’s complaints. He insisted that the patient was just whining to get attention. It took a failed medical procedure by a the colleague that the surgeon had chosen and the intervention of two other doctors (the patient’s primary care physician and a second specialist who we had insisted on calling in), to force the surgeon to deal with at least one of the major problems remaining in the after math of the surgery.

              The “second best” surgeon who would have actually paid attention before and after would have had a better handle on what he was getting into, would have given more useful information to the family afterwards, and would not have put the patient’s life in danger by refusing to acknowledge and act on the information provided by the patient afterwards.

            2. KellyK*

              I’d go with #2 for the same reasons as Traveler. Plus, if I can get the second best surgeon in their field (rather than the 50th or the 500th), then unless I have the weirdest of weird cases that leave even the #2 guy scratching his head, I’ll be well taken care of.

            3. LQ*

              But we aren’t talking about the best and second best. We are talking about a 25% excellent survival rate and a slightly below middle of the road 5% survival rate.

              If people are nearly exactly the same this isn’t an interesting question. The question becomes interesting when there is a real difference. The op mentioned not 100% competent. That’s not best, that would be slightly below average.

              1. Traveler*

                I was trying to keep them as even as possible because my point is that different people will have different priorities in their caretaker (they probably wont actually cost the same either). It all depends on the person’s past experiences, the complexity of the surgery, and so many other factors. I just didn’t think it was possible to say “oh if he’s not nice then he’s not a good caretaker” I think thats oversimplifying the variation out there. And back on the point of the conversation – it’s going to be the same way with managers.

            4. Joey*

              Id take a technical middle of the road doctor who showed he cared about my well being far above some guru who came off as if he didn’t. I don’t believe its possible to provide good care without good bedside manner.

              1. Traveler*

                So different people will choose different options – depending on your personality and what you’re looking for, which is why there is variety in the field. There are a lot of people out there who will choose whoever the technically best person is, regardless. That’s how they stay in business. There are fields where you can be great at something but not be a great person (look at all the problems in professional sports, acting, etc.)

            5. anonness*

              I had LASIK and ended up having a surgeon who was pretty awkward to follow up with. Doesn’t and didn’t matter to me though — surgeon was top notch. If I have issues, I’ll go to my optometrist or GP.

  10. Katie the Fed*

    My thinking on this issue is generally the following –

    I expect these things from my employees:
    – Do your work and do it well
    – Don’t be an asshole

    That’s really what all our various performance objectives and measures come down to. I need you to do your work and do it well, obviously. But you also have to be decent to be around, because you’re going to create a lot of problems if you don’t. People won’t want to work with you, you’ll create problems with other departments that I have to unscrew, and you’ll generally make everyone’s lives really hard.

    I’ve had really competent people working for me who were such jerks that they created more problems than they fixed. That’s not ok.

    You don’t have to be effusive or hyper friendly, but people should find you generally decent to work with. Don’t be an asshole.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      oh and I actually do frame it this way (a little more politely though) when I go over my employees’ performance expectations.

    2. Laura*

      This is so great. I’m going to incorporate this into my self assessments at work.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        It’s like my favorite Kurt Vonnegut quote, where a character is preparing to say the following at a baptism:

        “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

    3. Joey*

      Well, don’t be an asshole seems like a pretty low bar. Wouldn’t you rather have someone who motivated others, shared their expertise without being asked to, and contributed to the environment (as opposed to merely existing within it).

      1. James M*

        It’s meant to be a low bar… it’s part of the minimum requirements to get/keep a job. Obviously, some employees will exceed that requirement; a few will regularly work miracles.

        On the other hand, a few people find that bar quite challenging. I know one such person who’s been sacked from multiple jobs because of it.

        1. Joey*

          I’m not so convinced. I don’t think I’ve ever expected someone just to not be a drain. I expect everyone to contribute. If I told my boss my minimum expectation for my staff was essentially don’t be an asshole his first question would be “you mean you don’t expect anyone to contribute? You’re just hoping someone will?”

          1. Katie the Fed*

            Well, this whole thing is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I’d categorize contributing to the team and sharing expertise under “do your work and do it well”

          2. James M*

            Don’t forget

            – Do your work and do it well

            If “work” includes contributing in a group environment, that would absolutely be a minimum requirement.

    4. Kelly O*

      It’s the Wheaton maxim – “don’t be a dick.”

      Lots and lots of issues would be easily resolved if people just followed that one simple standard of behavior.

  11. Felicia*

    I think striking the balance between hard and soft skills is really important. The OP’s friend is pretty extreme especially in seeing that coffee as a big deal or even unpleasant at all, because it’s so normal. There are of course some people who are extreme in the other direction (though not the OP that I can tell). I’ve seen it a lot at start ups where you need to be super bubbly and best friends with everyone all the time and be all about the team socializing and Fun with a capital F constantly or you can’t work there. That’s their right of course, but I think that’s too extreme. These are the kinds of companies that have ping pong tables, office dogs and words like rockstar or ninja in their titles. Like with many many things in life, moderation is definitely best here.

  12. Dang*

    I honestly can’t wrap my head around how your friend got hired if he finds a simple coffee with his boss ‘unpleasant.’

    1. Steven M*

      Eh, I don’t think it’s that hard. I’ve had several bosses whom I could qualify coffee with as unpleasant. ‘Forced’, ‘awkward’, or ‘uncomfortable’ would be more likely terms, but still. Though I doubt I’d consider it ‘extremely’ unpleasant, as written in the letter. The easiest way for it to happen is when the boss inherits an employee he didn’t hire, due to some manner of restructuring, but I’ve also had at least one boss who did hire me who I just didn’t end up getting along with.

      Having said that, I don’t recall any of those bosses ever inviting me to coffee.

      1. Sunflower*

        On my first day of my job when I started at my company, my boss was going to take me to lunch but some last minute emergency came up and he couldn’t. I can’t put my finger on what exactly it was but our whole dynamic was just awkward for the 4 months I was in the job. I moved into another position in a different department and my new bosses felt the same way about him. It was confusing because I would hear him on the phone with people and everything seemed to flow and he seemed so comfortable. I’ve been here a year now and I still can’t figure out what it is about him

    2. Auntie Social*

      I can. I could have been that friend. If I had been, the boss would have no idea how I really felt. I would have smiled, made small talk and been friendly and polite and sociable and faked my way through it just fine. Then I’d have gone home that evening and moaned to my friends about how awkward and unpleasant I had found the whole thing.

      I don’t thing we can necessarily assume that the OP’s friend didn’t manage to do likewise.

      1. Dang*

        Well, what I mean is if he regards a coffee with his boss as ‘extremely unpleasant’ and regards being friendly/sociable at work as unimportant, I can’t imagine how he sat through potentially multiple interviews and presented himself well enough to get hired.

        I mean, I’m an extreme introvert but hide it pretty well so I get it to an extent.

        1. Auntie Social*

          I think I’m identifying quite strongly with the friend here, which colors my view of course, but I got the impression that he was talking more about how he’d like things to be at work rather than how he thinks they actually are. He could recognise that he needs to fake this stuff even if he thinks it shouldn’t matter.

          1. Dang*

            Rereading the letter, I think you’re right. They’re talking about how they thinks workplaces should be vs. how they are.

  13. smiley*

    I don’t regard e-mail smiley faces and multiple exclamation points as exuding friendliness. To the contrary, an e-mail free of these is professional and more respectful.

    1. LBK*

      I think it depends entirely on the context of the conversation and the relationship you have with the person. If I were writing a business-related email to a client it would be 100% professional, whereas a quick note to a coworker might have a smiley face at the end, depending on what it was about.

      1. Us, Too*

        I’ve had clients who LOVED emoticons. So I simply played it conservative until I got to know them well enough to make a judgement call on subsequent emails.

    2. Us, Too*

      Setting aside extremes in either direction, I don’t think that having no emoticons or exclamation points is necessary for “professional” communication. The bottom line is that an email should be written to be effective. For some email recipients, that will mean using things like emoticons and exclamation points and crazy font colors and what have you. For others it will be a single word or two. The key here is to know your audience and adjust your communication style accordingly.

    1. littlemoose*

      If he is, just explain that the coffee with the manager is a social norm to which he is expected to conform, and that in this case the hot beverage is not to soothe another individual’s emotional distress. Maybe he’ll get it then.

      1. Felicia*

        Sheldon Cooper understands when you explain that something is a non-optional social convention:)

        1. A Bug!*

          To briefly somewhat off-topic for a moment, that’s something I really like about Sheldon, even though I’m not a fan of the show generally. I think it’s a really smartly-written aspect of his character that he doesn’t understand social conventions, but is perfectly willing to cooperate with them once he’s made aware of them.

          It’s a refreshing change from the people I’ve met in real life who’ll argue until they’re blue in the face why they shouldn’t be expected to conform to basic social expectations or perform pointless niceties because their brains are just not wired that way.

          Which I suppose brings the topic back to the OP’s friend.

          1. Felicia*

            I like that too! I think because I recognize a bit of that in myself. I’ve always had a bit of trouble recognizing those “non optional social conventions” and they’ve never come naturally, so when people point them out to me, I do my best to conform. For example, before reading here, as I have minimal experience in the workforce, I didn’t realize the importance of occasionally attending work parties , especially holiday parties, and the importance of occasionally having lunch with your coworkers. I’d prefer to never attend a party and have my lunches entirely solitary all the time, but I understand these are important. I would probably never speak to coworkers about anything not strictly work related if I followed my natural instinct, but now force myself to say “hi, how are you!”

            I think those non optional social conventions are a soft skill that can to an extent be taught, because some people just don’t realize what they’re doing

            1. thingtwo*

              This post made me think of my first job. I was completely clueless. I did my job, but I only spoke when I needed to, and just worked. My boss (really weird and creepy anyway) would stand there and talk about his whole life story while I was working, and I smiled and nodded, but but was really just annoyed. I guess, I was like that to everyone their. One of my co-workers didn’t have a car, but lived in walking distance, and I passed by him everyday, but eventually asked him if he wanted a ride, and we became friends. He told me one day, “You know, everyone at work thinks you are a bleep, but you know what, you are actually pretty cool.” He also explained that the manager gave him several raises in a short period of time, and wouldn’t give me a raise because he didn’t like me. I didn’t stay in that job much longer, but I did learn a little from it. Social crap sucks, but you general have to do it or people with think badly of you and compare it to pissing in their cereal.

          2. Diet Coke Addict*

            Nothing drives me insane faster than people who will argue incessantly that they should not be expected to follow rules or behave in a socially-acceptable manner because they don’t understand WHY.

            It doesn’t matter the whys and wherefores. You don’t have to understand WHY saying please and thank you and wearing clean clothes and bathing and refraining from flattening old ladies with your car are all social norms. You just have to do them or risk ostracization–at which point you are not entitled to argue the rest of society into interacting with you again.

            1. OriginalYup*

              I completely agree, because the subtext always seems to be, “I don’t want to follow the rules AND I want to be exempt from the fallout.” If you decide that you don’t want to be a part of social conventions X, Y, and Z, that’s a valid choice. But the cost of that choice is the social rejection, lost relationships, or negative impressions that result when you opt out. I know someone who never RSVPs to any invites because she thinks the whole concept is too fussy and old fashioned. As a result, she doesn’t get invited to my parties anymore.

              1. Diet Coke Addict*

                I would have no choice but to strangle that person. Chasing down RSVPs from people who didn’t want to respond or didn’t feel it was necessary was easily the most stressful part of my wedding.

                1. hildi*

                  The last three comments between you guys is really profound stuff. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but am so going to be incorporating those concepts into my classes – I teach one on respectful workplace (your part in cultivating it). And I’ve never been able to really articulate the whole philosophy of what you guys just did so thanks for that. It makes total sense and will help me in that class.

          3. Kelly O*

            It’s what I like about Abed on Community too.

            He may not really understand it, but once you explain, he’s okay. Like A Bug! said, it’s the people who argue until they’re blue in the face that their way is right and you are completely wrong and irredeemable that get to me. We’re all wired different. That’s what makes us interesting.

  14. Lily in NYC*

    Why do you think your friend was upset about the coffee? Does he have social anxiety and is uncomfortable with things like going to coffee with the boss or is he just being a curmudgeon? Because this attitude is not going to serve him well unless he works in a field where it’s more acceptable to be antisocial (but rude is never ok).

  15. Celeste*

    It’s not a zero-sum game, though. Seldom do we have to choose one attribute over the other. Each person is a blend of these things. I have certainly heard the doctrine about likeable vs trainable in entry level hiring, but you won’t go the distance without both kinds of skills. FWIW I think the soft skills will always give somebody an edge as they ascend in their career, because the nature of things is that you become less hands-on as you rise and more about the big picture.

    1. Celeste*

      But even if you don’t want to rise, I think it takes a certain amount of personal appeal to get in the door and be kept on just because the workplace is inherently social.

    2. fposte*

      I would also say the less you have of one, the more you better have of the other.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        ha, yes. I’ve said something very similar. You’d better have one or the other, because incompetent and unpleasant means nobody is going to be on your side. People will overlook a lot if you’re really smart/capable OR have a great personality. But you’d better bring something to the table.

  16. Adam*

    Agreed with Alison that there should be an appreciable balance between the two and it’s not too difficult or unreasonable to hire for both. Not sure what line of work they’re in but it sounds like if the coworker’s attitude is as extreme as the OP makes it sound he doesn’t take into account the fact he works with people and not automatons that you can just push a button and get a result from when necessary. That could definitely be a problem when he’s looking to move up later in his career if he’s built an image of generally being walled off from his colleagues.

  17. Mena*

    OP, your friend would fail at my workplace; or more likely, he would never even be hired. Personality matters. Colleagues need to want to work with you and feel comfortable approaching you. Someone that is cold is not as approachable as someone warm.

    Outgoing isn’t necessary but approachable is; unfriendly and rude need not apply.

    1. Cassie*

      The way I see it, there are two things that factor into whether a staff member is considered approachable or not by fellow staffers – that person is knowledgeable about their work and how that person is going to react when approached. It’s not 100% about personality – I’m personally a grumpy prickly pear but if you approach me with a question, I’m going to be polite and helpful. Contrast that to someone who, whenever you give them any kind of document, sighs and groans about this or that.

      It’s somewhat difficult, though, to judge approachability in an interview because the person conducting the interview is typically someone who would be a superior. But the coworkers/peers are the ones who are most impacted by approachability. If you’re a superior, you can assign tasks to someone who is a bit unapproachable. If you’re just a peer, you might opt to go out of your way to find another solution to avoid that person.

      1. Mena*

        We interview from several different levels/angles; it is never just by a superior. Sure the hiring manager interviews candidates but so do those that would be peers/colleagues, and others from across the organization with whom the candidate will be interacting.

        Grumpy, prickly pear doesn’t sound too approachable to me but that can certainly be countered with interest, enthusiasm, and knowledge. In my workplace, coolness doesn’t foster relationships. Soft skills are very much considered in our hiring system, together with experience.

        1. Cassie*

          I meant grumpy, prickly pear in my personal life – not at work!

          I still think there’s a limit as to how much you can tell in an interview, even when you have peers/subordinates sitting in. They could seem very friendly and engaging in the interview but become a different story once hired. Of course, I would assume a job candidate would be on their best behavior and give “correct” answers, but then again you always hear about the wild and crazy responses people give so maybe I’m not realistic (e.g. candidates bad-mouthing past clients or coworkers or bosses. )

  18. stellanor*

    Some soft skills are definitely super important. I have a coworker who is completely incapable of functioning as a member of a team and it makes him excruciating to work with AND affects the work of anyone else forced to collaborate with him. He’s incredibly smart and highly educated but can’t deal with being wrong or his ideas not being adopted, so every time he has to collaborate it turns into a huge battle and everyone except him is miserable.

    Lack of soft skills can actually be such a problem they drag down otherwise extremely skilled people.

  19. LQ*

    I wonder if there isn’t a bit of hyperbole happening here. Either the OPs friend or the OP might be saying a little more than is true.

    I’ve been known to (read on a daily basis) say that if only we could get rid of the humans my job would be great! It was said that my birthday wish was to turn into a cyborg (close enough to true). And that really I don’t care at all about someone’s attitude as long as the work is done. But at the end of the day if someone’s attitude is making it hard to get the work done (a staffer who writes rude critiques of other’s work) then that attitude is not acceptable because it doesn’t get the work done. The staffer may be completely correct in the technical part of the critique but if the person he’s critiquing won’t listen because it is rude then it is wrong. But it would be really easy to read me as sounding exactly like the OPs friend.

    And part of that might simply be age. Nuance is something that is a lot easier to see with more experience where I might say one thing, but I know there are lots of shades coloring that experience so I know that I have to be polite and open to even stupid questions if I want to encourage people to come to me first. I have to calmly explain something for the 40th time because I can’t fire the person who doesn’t get it and it is my job to make sure they can get it.

    Would things be easier if we were all totally logical, there was no bias, and people were always straightforwardly trying to do their jobs? Yup!
    And here in the real world you’ll find sometimes you deal with someone’s incompetence, and sometimes you deal with someone’s rambling, and sometimes you deal with someone’s unwillingness to discuss their personal life.

  20. Cajun2core*

    The question boils down to would you want to hire a Vulcan who is very good at what he does or a human who is good but many not be quite as good as the Vulcan. Personally, I would prefer the human but some companies the Vulcan would be the better fit.

    1. LQ*

      Why does the human get to be “not quite as good” when the person who isn’t super duper friendly is an alien? It really seems to phrase the question in a very leading way.

      (That said I’d totally sign up to work with a bunch of Vulcans who were extremely competent.)

      1. aebhel*

        That’s interesting, because I would VASTLY prefer the Vulcan. I can work with humans, but I find them baffling and stressful. :)

  21. Annika*

    Interesting that people bring up a surgeon as the archetypal “bad bedside manner” example of skills over personality. I’m not convinced. Do I want the skills? Yes. Do I want some crazed narcissist with a god complex? Maybe not. Surgeons screw up – do you want someone who refuses to believe they messed up and won’t fix things? Or someone who thinks so little of their patients that they write their initials in the sutures, or do other horrific things because of ego?

    And surgeons aside, what about doctors in general? Almost every other doctor needs good bedside manner. So many people are put off by condescending or rude doctors. Or trust authority and deny their own instincts. A cold and unfriendly doctor may technically be doing their job but their unwillingness to make small talk may literally be killing people.

    1. Traveler*

      I think surgeons can also get away with it because they tend to have less contact with the patients. Besides the “this is what we’re doing” meeting ahead of time and the “checking the wound for healing” meeting after… you don’t really talk to them. Their work is done while you’re out of it. The ones I was thinking of didn’t have a god complex, so much as zero sensitivity to patients feelings and putting things very bluntly (which is sometimes necessary depending on the situation).

      1. Observer*

        Firstly, in many cases, you do have more than those contacts with the surgeon. Secondly, the effectiveness of the pre-op and post-op meetings can be significantly affected if the surgeon is not listening. Whether it’s shutting down a patient’s complaint of pain that they are “not supposed” to have, or not listening to a patient mentioning that they have a deviated septum or whatever else it is that didn’t show up on the paperwork, it could make a real difference.

        1. Traveler*

          My opinion is colored by my experiences. When I have been in a situation that involved a surgeon, those were the only contacts. Everything else – the pain later, etc. was outsourced to other physicians. This usually had to do with time, because the surgeons were only in their offices one day a week, and the other four were in surgery, making face time to talk a limited commodity.

    2. Elizabeth*

      I’m laughing at the surgeon analogy, because doctors don’t go to other doctors who have nasty personalities & no bedside manner.

      William Hurt starred in “The Doctor” back in 1991. The most famous line his character had in the early part of the move was “I want you to cut straighter and care less.” His attitude had an abrupt change when he was diagnosed with cancer and he had to see a surgeon who had the same attitude he had espoused.

      The reality is, unless we’re talking medical zebras or unicorns[1], any board-certified specialist will be more than sufficient for most people. Board certification carries the promise of high level of competence. Then, it becomes about the fit that a patient has with their provider.

      [1] This comes from the saying “If you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. And definitely don’t assume unicorns.” The idea is that diseases that are common (horses) are more likely to occur than diseases or conditions that are rare (zebras) or very rare to mythical (unicorns). Is a zebra or unicorn a possibility? Sure, but rule out that it’s a horse at the door first.

      1. Traveler*

        I generally agree with your point but as long as there are millions of misdiagnosed patients, and thousands of surgical errors every year, there will still be people who want the person that “cuts straighter”.

      2. Us, Too*

        Let us not forget plastic surgery where technique is only part of the equation. Art is the other. In that case, I’ll take an artistic expert with crappy bedside manner any day over someone who lacks an artistic eye.

  22. Anon 1*

    Ugghh it is a huge pet peeve of mine when people bring their bad attitude to work. Granted there are some life situations such as divorce, death, health that creates such enormous stress it will inevitable invade all parts of someone’s life. I get that. What I hate are people who, for example, say “I’m not a morning person” and then use it as an excuse to be curt and rude all morning. I don’t need someone to ask me how my weekend was or when my birthday is, but I do need someone who can say hello and generally be pleasant. I don’t really have patience for people who aren’t nice at work, for the simple fact that I’m not a people person, but I go out of my way to be pleasant and helpful in the work place (and its just not that hard to do).

  23. E.R*

    I hated boss-coffees in my first professional job. I thought they were some sort of test, and I was always hyper-aware of what I was saying, and any social awkwardness. And there was a lot – professional meetings mixed with all sorts of meal etiquette, ah! I would stress for days beforehand and would have gladly opted out of every single one (and all work social events) and just focused on doing my job.

    6 years down the road – yay for boss-coffees! I wish I could have one every week. I get uninterrupted time to talk about my work, problems, ideas, and figure out what he is really up to. I never come out of them thinking it was a waste of time. It helps that I’ve fully embraced my awkwardness and no longer give a crap when I use the wrong fork.

    1. Traveler*

      Oh work place meal etiquette. Has their been a comprehensive post on this before? There should be a guide that’s up to date. Unless you’re very close with your coworkers this can be such a bear, same with interview meal etiquette (which Alison touched on earlier this week I believe).

      1. Purple Dragon*

        I think the problem with a guide like this is it changes based on location. Where I am swapping hands with cutlery would be frowned upon but in other places that’s normal. In some places turning your fork upside down is rude, in other places people don’t care. Some places it’s normal to cut up all your food first, then eat, other places people will be wondering what you’re doing.
        I think the major things, like not blowing your nose on the napkin/ serviette, are common but other than that – it’s location based.

        I tend to take my cues from others and mirror their behaviour. I will also never order Clam Chowder again at a work event. That was humiliating – there is absolutely no way to eat that with any kind of decorum !

  24. Cath in Canada*

    I learned a fabulous phrase this week to describe someone who brings real value, but is a pain in the behind to work with: “(s)he’s a real pound of pennies”.

    Every workplace I know of has had a mix of “pound of pennies” people, with good hard skills but a soft skills deficit, and people who really “get” the soft skills component. I definitely prefer working with the latter when I can, but sometimes you really do need those pennies…

  25. Observer*

    I mostly agree with all of this. Just one point, though. There is a difference between anti-social and un-social. Anti-social is a problem, even when it’s not overtly rude. Un-social is a different beast, though, and yes, it should be ok. The difference is not always obvious, but it’s important.

    Most introverts are not social, but they are not anti-social (nor are they shy, by the way). They just don’t enjoy lots of time chit-chatting, shmoozing or whatever. In some cases, they do enjoy it a little, but find it depleting. Either way, it shouldn’t be a big deal in most cases. The anti-social person is different in that he (or she) actively dislikes social activity. It shows in impatience with others, approachability, unwillingness or difficulty in dealing with normal social interactions – which sounds like the LW’s friend.

  26. Letter Writer*

    Hi all, I’m the person who wrote this letter. I really appreciate all of the responses here, and thanks to Alison for answering my question.

    Alison and other who’ve said my framing was clumsy, you’re right, and thanks for reframing in a more logical way. My pre-“real” job background is primarily in customer service and other public facing jobs, which I think comes through in my attitude towards work – I’ve had lots of crappy food service jobs that were made bearable only because of fulfilling friendships with coworkers, and after my first couple of food service jobs I was able to get new jobs without bothering with a resume, simply by networking with current and former coworkers and bosses. I know that in more skilled positions things don’t work quite so simply! Hard skills definitely matter. But the impression I got from my current manager is that I was hired partly because of my skills and education, but more because of my personality and attitude.

    My friend’s viewpoint is definitely throwing me off a bit though. I’m the sort of person who is happy to listen to non-work related stories about a coworker’s husband or dog, provided it doesn’t interfere with my or their ability to work, and I like it when my coworkers ask me how my weekend was. I don’t think that I overshare – I’ll say something like “I had dinner with my boyfriend at this great new restaurant on Saturday, have you tried it yet?” or “I drove to [town] to visit my parents for my mom’s birthday, what about you?”

    Later in my career, if I end up in a position to be hiring employees (I currently have a low level management position where I manage employees but do not make hiring decisions myself) I would love to be able to draw on connections I’ve made with people to find great employees. I’m probably going to be hesitant to reach out to Jenny who did a perfectly good job but never said “good morning” or offered to take on anything extra to help out the team, I’m going to think of James who was always cheerful and asked what else he could do to help when he finished a task.

    To hear my friend talk, it makes me feel horribly intrusive and airheaded to feel that way.

    1. LQ*

      I’m going to say there is a world of difference between saying good morning and doing extra work to help out the team.

      I only say good morning when I recognize that it is required of me, but I’m always going above and beyond in my job, taking on additional tasks etc.

      Don’t tie these two together. They have zero relationship to each other.

      1. Traveler*

        I don’t think they tied them together – they said or. Even if you don’t say good morning, lending in an extra hand to help other workers is showing a level of consideration for other people. It means you can think outside your own box.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I made LQ’s point below before I saw hers. By bucketing them together, I do think the OP isn’t thinking as clearly as she ideally would about how these two things are different.

          1. Traveler*

            It’s not being stated as well as it should, true. I was thinking of it more in the context of the post from a few days ago where you discussed work place culture/chilliness on the part of employee as a potential problem beyond pleasantries.

            In certain work places Jenny who does her job but never says good morning when everyone else does, will stick out like a sore thumb and increase attention to other issues.

            But that’s certainly not an across the board situation.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m probably going to be hesitant to reach out to Jenny who did a perfectly good job but never said “good morning” or offered to take on anything extra to help out the team, I’m going to think of James who was always cheerful and asked what else he could do to help when he finished a task.

      But I think you’re conflating the wrong things again :)

      Not saying good morning is in a different category of things than not taking on anything extra. The former is an interpersonal style that really doesn’t have a substantive impact in most jobs; the latter is a performance issue.

      1. Joey*

        I think its okay to conflate the two because this is the reality of what lots of managers do. They assume the outgoing person is more willing to take on more because he’s visibly so much more happy in his job.

        1. LQ*

          But then you’ve already made the decision that being nice is more important to you than being competent. Being visibly happy is more important than being actually happy or being competent.

          Which I guess is your decision to not actually examine results: Jane made 50 teapots, Wakeen made 10 but was SUPER HAPPY!

          I also think there is a lot of conflating of making this an either or. Either you’re super outgoing or you’re rude. (And I’ve known super outgoing people who are super rude too.) These are not the only two options. Jane might be polite but not going out of her way to say how awesome everything is. Wakeen might be super happy or he might just be slightly more pleasant. A little nuance in this conversation would go a long way.

          1. Joey*

            No, I’m not saying you sacrifice performance, but when two people are doing their jobs and one is cheery, while the other blends in with the wall and keeps to himself guess who most exec’s will think of first for a new exciting project? The one who he wants to be around more. That’s usually the cheery person.

            1. LQ*

              But that’s a very false analogy. You’re saying 2 people who are the same except one is chipper.

              That seems like an easy choice to make. I’m saying it is more complex. And even the OP made it pretty clear that the question wasn’t about 2 people exactly the same except one is nicer. The question is 2 people one competent and not chipper and one incompetent and chipper.

              Competence should matter is what I’m trying to say, and I expect what the OPs friend was aiming at. There should be more to work than chipperness.

              1. Joey*

                But the ops question is misguided. No one in their right mind would sacrifice a competent employee for one who isn’t regardless of how cheery he is. But people often mistake that cheeriness doesn’t matter if you’re competent and that’s just not true.

            2. Letter Writer*

              You said it better than I did. What I’m trying (poorly) to compare is two people who are not *significantly* different in terms of effort and competency, but are significantly different in terms of attitude. If the slightly more competent person has a poor attitude or is unpleasant to be around, I don’t think I would pick them over someone slightly less competent but more pleasant.

              Of course an extremely poor performer with a great attitude is not going to be a valuable employee without improving their performance, and I don’t think valuing someone like that over an extremely high performer is wise. But if the extremely high performer has a terrible attitude, I don’t think they’re particularly valuable either.

            3. Scott M*

              Sorry – lil pet peeve here: What is this thing about wanting to be picked for the ‘exciting new project’? I’ve seen that listed before as a reason to be more sociable and outgoing.

              Not everyone wants to be on exciting new projects. I always remember the saying “Pioneers get the arrows. Settlers get the land”. I’ve made a career out of supporting “exciting new projects”, after they got implemented. That’s what I prefer.

              Of course I’m not saying that people should avoid such projects, just that you shouldn’t assume that EVERYONE wants such things.

              1. Joey*

                That’s exactly why folks who remind their superiors they want more get those projects while the quiet ones don’t.

                1. Scott M*

                  But not everyone wants “more”, and therefore don’t see the need to remind their superiors of such a thing.

                  One type of person is not better than the other just because one wants ‘more’ and ‘exciting projects’ while the other is content with taking on the grunt work while keeping their skills current.

    3. fposte*

      Echoing the above–I’m in academics, where there are plenty of people who aren’t good socially; however, many of those are deeply kind and helpful people who will go above and beyond to help out.

      Greetings definitely have their uses, but they’re not as broadly significant as you’re making them.

      1. JC*

        So much yes. I’m a researcher (though not an academic), and fit the stereotype well—I am shy and introverted, and my ideal work day is one where I would work uninterrupted in my office all day without having to talk to anyone. I do my best to be as personable as I can and I know people find me to be easy to work with; I doubt that this letter-writer (and the letter-writer last week who talked about getting her employees to be “nicer”) were thinking of someone like me when they wrote their letters.

        That said, I suck at small talk and I know that some people might think of me as someone who is difficult to get to know, especially people I have only met recently. I hate knowing that some people would lump me with people who are rude and refuse to say hello to you in the hall. I take on anything my manager throws at me with enthusiasm, I eat lunch with my colleagues, I smile at people in the hallways, but I still might find it nerve-wracking to have a coffee with a new boss I don’t know well.

    4. Lora*

      In Nerd-speak – these thigns are orthogonal. Which is to say, you can be a very social person with loads of hard skills, or a very antisocial person with no skills at all. They are not related to each other in any way whatsoever and should be considered as independent variables until proven to be otherwise.

      1. Joey*

        That’s only if you believe social skills are of no value to hard skills which isn’t usually the case. Lots of times I can’t technically have good hard skills without good social skills.

        1. Lora*

          Depends on the hard skill–you’re in HR if I recall correctly? I can see where that would certainly be the case, if you’re spending a lot of time working in groups. In my job, hard skills consist of being able to do math and research technical specifications independently, working in the lab on your own, and bringing completed results back to the group days or weeks later.

          Soft skills come in when working with that group–making sure I understand the needs correctly, what they are asking for, presenting the work in a way that is understandable by people not in my sub-sub-sub-discipline, communicating timelines, negotiating access to shared resources, budgeting, stuff like that.

      2. Jamie*

        I totally agree with this (and am glad to know I’m not the only one who uses the word orthogonal in regular conversation.)

        Hard skills can be coupled with good soft skills or crappy soft skills, as can incompetence. Just like either can be coupled with blue eyes, or being 5′ 3″. They aren’t tied to each other.

        There is a proximate cause to hard skill and exhibiting poor soft skills, that can be true. The more valued by one’s employer for hard skills the more leeway you will have with temperament, social skills…up to a point. So there is a subset of people who have the ability to employ much better soft skills but don’t bother, because they don’t have to.

        These people may still have fallout with reputation if they leave the company, or opportunities outside their scope, but there are different standards for behavior depending on the position and talent involved.

        But when it comes to what people can and cannot do Lora is absolutely right, you can’t draw a correlation between hard skills and poor soft skills and vis versa.

        This perception is out there and it needs to be corrected, imo. In an interview once I was asked, after I had done very well on the technical tests, who wrote my cover letter for me. Because they truly believed that people with hard skills were poor communicators and so I couldn’t possibly have crafted a cogent and well written letter.

        Like they think at some point in school we have to pick logic or language and make a choice. It’s irritating.

  27. Brett*

    Count me in among the apparently small crowd that finds boss coffee extremely uncomfortable. It is not the coffee itself (well, not only he coffee, see below), it is the coffee during work hours. I am simply not comfortable with being out in public not working. I know part of this comes from being in the public sector and wearing a uniform. (My coworkers dress down when they go out, but I am not normally authorized.) Yet, even on dress down days I still feel uncomfortable with doing mostly social activities during work hours. Posting here is actually as close as I regularly get to that!
    Doesn’t help that I cannot handle caffeine at all, which is the norm for these sort of things. One cup of coffee and I am too wired to function for at least an hour.

  28. thenoiseinspace*

    One of the things I’ve learned in the last few years, both through experience and through this blog, is something I mentally refer to as The Importance of Coffee.

    Before entering the working world, coffee really was never its own “thing” for me. Sure, friends and I would grab a drink on the way somewhere, but it was never that important on its own. In the work world, it’s a totally different event. It’s the first stage of interviews, it’s the way you make connections, it’s the way you present yourself – I honestly feel like people are judging my “getting coffee” skills just as much as my portfolio. It’s not a bad thing at all, just different, and if you understand it, it can work for you.

    Basically it’s the difference between “getting coffee,” a social activity with friends for which I can wear whatever I rolled out of bed in and chat about movies or the latest chocolate 3D printer or whatever, and “Getting Coffee,” a professional event with a dress code and some parameters on the topics of conversation.

    Before I understood that difference, I probably would have been a little freaked out by a manager taking me to coffee (though probably not as strong a reaction as OP’s friend) just as I would have been if the manager had suggested going to a movie. It’s hard to figure out the manager vs. friend boundary at first, especially when it comes to activities which have previously been reserved only for friends. I think it’s possible that’s what’s happening here – the friend is taken aback by what he sees as an intrusion into his social circle. Of course, that might not be it at all, but offhand, that would be my guess.

  29. ashamed*

    This topic always frustrates me to no end..
    When I’m at work, I go out of my way to be friendly and approachable to coworkers….yet I had one coworker who acted as if I were invisible. I’d say hello and goodbye, but never get anything in response. They were lovely with every one else but for some reason never chose to speak a word to me. It did affect my work as well.
    Another one, I”d go out of my way to say hello and goodbye to the person I shared my office with, always asking if it’s OK if I do a certain task so it doesn’t distrupt her work, etc, just generally being nice and considerate–yet I always got the vibe that she disliked me, and she complained that I was disrespectful and nasty to her!

    I was dealing with a client that I genuinely liked and did the best I could to help them in any way; but later I found out they wanted to work with someone else and that I wasn’t very nice at all. That kind of crushed me a little.

    I.just.don’t.get.it. I DONT get what I’m doing wrong, I go over incidents a million times in my head and I still don’t see what I’m doing wrong.

    I feel like I have to struggle to do everything–the hard skills AND the soft skills and no matter how nice and friendly I am, someone who has the power to affect my job will not like me. I’m tired.

    1. Crazy Cat Lady*

      I used to take stuff like this extremely personally but I really try hard not to now. You never know what’s going on with them or why they prefer dealing with a certain person. I wouldn’t bother assuming the worst – it might just be that they have a better rapport with another person… it could be anything! And even if they DON’T like you, no big deal. There are a lot of people I don’t like to deal with at work and it’s nothing truly personal about them, just that we have different work styles.

  30. Lamington*

    our svp has a really strong personality and can be downright unpleasant if things don’t get do done his way even threatening to fire you. However for external events, he has his charming personality and big smile. He is really good at what he does, I imagine if he wasn’t then he would have been fired long time ago for some of his antics.

  31. Artemesia*

    Every time I hired someone based solely on their expertise, I came to regret it. My last terrible hire was a terrific expert; we really had her marked for great things ahead. But we knew she was ‘abrasive’ which everyone who hears that in a rec should translate as ‘asshole’. We thought we could deal with that. Until, she undermined the department to the larger organization when we put her on outside committees; until she undermined the program itself to its clients. The second day she was on board, we had people in the central HR system calling and asking ‘who the hell IS this person. She is over here throwing a fit about our information policies.’ She didn’t want to have to provide her contract letter because she didn’t think her salary etc was any of their business as they were setting her up with access codes and such. (we had a very decentralized hiring process)

    A happy day when she didn’t get a promotion she expected (and we frankly expected when we hired her) and I put someone else in charge of the program — entirely because she was an asshole and we felt she would damage the program in spite of having all sorts of good expertise that we needed — and so she left. There was singing in the streets.

    Some offices have a ‘no asshole’ rule for hiring. Seems like a good idea to me. That said, people don’t have to be extroverts or smarmy — but they do need to be easy to get along with. Almost every problem I ever had with staff was social skill or attitude related and not skill related. Even the receptionist who refused to use a computer — the problem was not her lack of skill but her unwillingness to acquire a new skill. We fired her after giving her lots of chances to adapt to the new realities of her role.

    1. Anon 1*

      I agree. I really think that being generally pleasant in a office can help a competent person go a long way. I’m not talking friendly, just pleasant and non-confrontational. I’ve worked with some highly competent people who were also very curt. I’m not warm and fuzzy, but even I felt their cold shoulder. Ultimately it hurt their ability to be completely effective simply because people avoided working with them. I honestly think there are some baseline interpersonal skills needed for most jobs in order to be effective. I think that baseline, as you said, is just don’t be an a-hole.

  32. C Average*

    This hard skills/soft skills conversation always makes me think of a particular colleague from another team with whom I have to occasionally interact.

    He’s got an extremely specialized skill set and has done impressive, award-winning work in his area of expertise. When we hired him, it was considered a major coup. He’s very bright and an extremely hard worker, everyone agrees. But he has zero sense of humor, zero empathy, and zero charisma. He has obvious disdain for almost everyone around him. The only thing he brings to the table is the ability to help our company produce the best extremely specialized chocolate teapots in the industry, and he’s brilliant at that.

    Almost everyone hates this guy. I actually passed up a shot at a fairly substantial promotion in part because it would’ve meant interacting quite a bit more with him.

    For the record, I don’t think he’s the stereotypical asshole. I’m guessing he’s pleasant to his family and friends. He just has a very narrow idea of what work is. His concept of work is “show up and apply every iota of energy to doing the one specific thing I was hired to do to the utter exclusion of everything else.” I don’t think it would occur to him to place value on the work others do that’s different from his particular kind of work.

    1. Letter Writer*

      Your colleague sounds exactly like my friend, especially the “obvious distain” part. (He doesn’t think it’s obvious though.) He’s just out of university like me, so he hasn’t had an impressive career just yet, but he is extremely smart and driven, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up excelling in his field like your colleague. He’s a great person in social contexts outside of work, but he just doesn’t see any value in expending any of his energy doing anything other than the one specific thing he was hired to do.

      1. Lora*

        *snort* Best of luck to him.

        Listen, that one specific thing? In 2-5 years, they won’t need it anymore. It’ll be outsourced. Or a computer will do it. He better have demonstrated that he can do other things and is easy to work with, thus can work in a different department, on a different team, in a slightly different role, because that is what it takes to stay gainfully employed in these modern times.

      2. C Average*

        You should direct him to this blog! Seriously, my soft skills (which have gone from pretty poor to decent, and continue to improve) have come so far thanks to Alison’s advice and the input of the commenters. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read something that totally describes something I do just because it’s my idea of normal, and I have this a-ha moment and think, “Oh, wow, I’ll bet that totally bugs my colleagues and they just don’t know how to tell me so!”

    2. Jules*

      Yep, I have one that I am working with now. Not particularly brilliant like the person you described but from conversations with him with regards to work, I get the impression that we all should follow his way or the highway. In fact his boss complained to mine that I was being too accomodating to business during system setup. Erm.. Dude.. the system was bought to accomodate the business, not the other way around. He also don’t attend to any department meetings or functions. I could not decide if he is not interested or he thinks we are too stupid for him. *shrugs*

      I am actually considering looking for other work so I don’t have deal with him each time.

  33. SDP*

    I’m hoping some soft skills can be learned. I’m a good listener and observer, but I often have trouble interpreting what I’m seeing in a social setting/when interacting with people. I’m good with people I know, but my first impressions can be a bit iffy. I’m working on it, especially since I’m job hunting and networking right now, but the soft skills side doesn’t come naturally. With practice, maybe there’s hope?

    1. Sharm*

      I think so! What I think is most important is not being a jerk. If that’s not your issue, then I think any shortcomings you feel you may have are far less destructive.

      But acting like you know everything, are better than everyone else, and acting as if team members are impediments in your way? THOSE are what have been problematic in my work experiences. Not those who maybe are a little awkward on first impression or something.

  34. Anons*

    OP’s friend sounds like my ex, and like several of my former friends and peers, all in the “geek fields.” Programmers, sysadmins, software development guys, some of them somewhere on the spectrum and some of them just self-centered jerks, and all of them feeding their behavior into the same pit that normalized it.

    (Being the token woman in the group with them: always full of pleasantness! *rolls eyes* I do not regret my career and life change away from that group of folks.)

    Hopefully since this person is still young and entry-level, he will adapt to the fact that social wheels need greasing and there’s a reason for the soft-skills side of things. I don’t care for the group of folks standing in the hall who will not shut up about American Idol and cars either, but I *do* believe in being kind, polite, and thoughtful when dealing with anyone for any professional reason. Even if it weren’t just the right thing to do, it gets you a lot farther a lot faster than being a jerk does.

  35. Lora*

    I am in one of those hard skills type of jobs. Let me tell you, we have LOADS of perfectly qualified scientists and engineers banging down the door. I will take the ones with soft skills ANY DAY.

    It is possible to learn soft skills, and indeed, most of my colleagues refuse to hire anyone who hasn’t learned the following soft skills:
    -Having Coffee with your bosses/colleagues
    -Business lunches and dinners
    -How to give a PowerPoint talk
    -How to give a Chalk Talk (i.e. from memory, without slides)
    -How to talk to investors & the guys who control your budget
    -Conference buffet behavior
    -Holding your liquor 101 (this may be covered by “I don’t drink”)
    -Appropriate business attire & grooming
    -Basic introductions in various cultures and the Firm American Handshake (TM)
    -Appropriate use of LinkedIn and other social media
    -Networking event behavior (e.g. golf, poker games, Friday night beer)

    It isn’t hard. Well, playing golf decently is hard, the rest is a skill like knowing all the functions of Excel. Yes, you can get by without it in many jobs, but it’s better if you learn to do these things properly. Join Toastmasters, use a fork/chopsticks like a civilized person, talk about what you wanted to be when you grew up, get a glass of something fizzy and nurse it all night, wear neutral slacks, always fold on 2 & 7, and refrain from making romantic overtures on LinkedIn, you’ll be OK.

    1. Traveler*

      +1 on learning soft skills part. I think the hard part is acknowledging you have the problem in the first place.

    2. Artemesia*

      I particularly love ‘conference buffet behavior’ LOL

      I was once at a conference of largely geeky types where there was a dessert bites buffet. The guys who got in line first piled plates so high with treats they could hardly carry them; the people at the back of the line didn’t get any at all because the conference had planned on people having a few, not gorging on a dozen or more small desserts. And then there were the people who took out plastic bags and filled them with cheese from the wine and cheese reception cheese cube buffet table.

  36. Kate*

    Just wanted to pop in and say that when we’re saying “antisocial” here, we probably mean asocial. Asocial = not real outgoing, preferring to be left alone, inconsiderate of others at times. Antisocial = antagonistic to society, burning down buildings and whatnot. *dies on hill*

  37. JaneJ*

    Problem for me is, not all your employees’ interactions are solely with you. They have to work with other people within and outside of the organization. While you might value their skills over personality, other may just find them rude and may respond by being less-than-easy to work with themselves. When your employee can’t get things done w/ other people, he/she will likely come to you to resolve it. Do you really want to have to be facilitating all sorts of things simply because your employee lacks social skills?

    Like everything else in life, it’s all about balance.

    FYI, I say this as a person who came to the workplace also believing that “personality and feelings are completely irrelevant to work.” I believed that you should just be able to tell the truth, including saying something the organization did was “stupid” if it clearly was. I believe I said, if the people responsible for said “stupid” didn’t like me saying it, they should just “be better at their jobs.” Wow. I learned pretty quickly that when you soften your approach, apply some politeness, and behave like a decent person, all these doors that were previously closed to you start to open, and people are happy to do things for you.

    1. Graciosa*

      Your last paragraph was dead on. I know a lot of engineers who believe firmly that nothing matters but the quality of your work (not picking on engineers, I’m sure others share this delusion and I just happen to know a lot of engineers). Basic courtesies are a waste of time, and why would you do something so inefficient as to try to frame a criticism to make it more palatable to the idiot who screwed up?

      The soft skills that some people despise are critically important when you have to work with other human beings – kudos to you for figuring it out (not everyone does).

  38. Resort Manager*

    I think it depends on what you are hiring for. I manage a small resort with a front desk staff of about 8 people. In the past, when I have focused more on work history, I found those people to be to by-the-book and regimented. They were used to working in a larger enviroment which created problems. When I started hiring, focusing mainly on personality (how they would work with the other employees and how they would interact with our guests) those employees suceeded. But this is also a customer service industry where Hospitality is key. Anyone can use a computer to check someone in. Its how you do it, that is important.

  39. Anonymous Because of Detail*

    There may be a little too much detail in this one, so I’m not going to use my regular screen name.

    I have worked with:

    1. The Know-It-All – a highly technically competent individual who gets great results on individual projects and has now alienated the majority of the management team (including me). This person cannot let *anything* go, and will continue to challenge any direction contrary to their preferences. Our higher level boss actually asked publicly if there was some kind of communication problem (“Am I not making myself clear?”) because it was so utterly unbelievable that anyone would behave like this.

    2. The Taskmaster – a person who is relentlessly driven to get work done and is oblivious to anything else. The Taskmaster refused to attend a meeting in person (rather than online) in a conference room fifteen feet from their cubicle by arguing an unacceptable loss of productivity walking back to resume work when the meeting concluded. I am not making this up.

    3. The Snoop – an individual who insisted that unspecified “critical papers” must be located in the only drawer I typically kept locked in my desk (at the time, I kept my gym bag in it) and had facilities unlock it to be searched while I was on vacation. Not being stupid – and knowing The Snoop – I had emptied the drawer before I went out of town.

    4. The Well-Intentioned Newbie – a friendly individual with a helpful attitude that I hired into an entry level position. The Well-Intentioned Newbie needed more coaching on some technical matters, but added other valuable skills (technical skills in an adjacent area, some project management) to the mix on my team.

    Of these, The Know-It-All and The Taskmaster were clearly more competent on hard skills, and The Well-Intentioned Newbie was infinitely better on the soft ones (I admit I just tossed The Snoop into the mix because I still find this behavior amazing). I would (and did) take The Well-Intentioned Newbie over the others any time. That said, The Well-Intentioned Newbie was not The Well-Meaning Incompetent.

    The other three can “get gone” as far as I’m concerned. No amount of brilliance makes up for the impact to the rest of the team.

  40. aebhel*

    I do wish, as a general rule, that people would stop classifying ‘soft skills’ as ‘extroverted or able to fake it’. I’ve known extroverted people who were obnoxious and intrusive and introverts who were perfectly pleasant; even given a certain level of social competence, it depends a lot on the office environment and the specific job; a chatty, high-energy extrovert isn’t going to be the ideal person for every role.

    1. justme*

      Thank you! I am a perfectly pleasant and socially competent introvert and I agree.

  41. justme*

    What jobs? That has been the complete opposite of my experiences. I am far from rude, friendly and approachable. I have been let go, despite good job performance, for not being outgoing enough even though my job had zero to do with sales or otherwise serving the public. Oftentimes not being outgoing or extroverted is taken for being rude. Meanwhile, I’ve seen social butterfly types not particularly known for good job performance thrive.

Comments are closed.