Would you rather work for someone competent or someone nice? In my 2015 book “Grumpy Old Party,” I pointed out that many (if not most) people, given that binary choice, would opt for the latter.
Suppose, for instance, you are a clerk at a store, and a merchant who owes the store $385 is about to deliver $1000 worth of goods. Your job is to accept the goods and pay the merchant the difference. You pay the merchant $715 and then you proceed to tell your two bosses, Mr. Competent and Mr. Nice.
“Good job!” says Mr. Nice.
“You’re an idiot!” barks Mr. Competent. “$1000 minus $385 is $615, not $715. You just cost us $100 because of your stupidity!” Then, he says to Mr. Nice, “This is only a dumb clerk who doesn’t know any better, but you, you’re my business partner! How is this store going to be a success if my partner is an idiot?”
Mr. Competent then storms out of the room as Mr. Nice chuckles, turns to you and says, “I guess we both goofed.”
If you’re like most people, upon learning that your two bosses are planning to dissolve the partnership and only one of them will continue to own the store, you’re surely hoping that the person who stays is Mr. Nice!
You figure that even if Mr. Nice completely runs the business into the ground after, say, one year, at least you’ll have a peaceful and pleasant year, and then you can worry about finding another job. Whereas, if Mr. Competent runs the store, he might turn it into a thriving success that lasts for generations, but every day you work there, you’ll be miserable.
Consider another example: My family and I recently went out to dinner and encountered a server who told us it was her first day on the job. In fairness, it wouldn’t be right to call her inept; she was simply inexperienced (by now, she might be a wiz at her job).
Nonetheless, she botched our order so many times until she finally got it right. She apologized profusely over and over again until I told her, “It’s OK, and do you know why? Because you’re nice!” She was very grateful.
I remember asking my wife, “Would you rather have a nice server who makes mistakes, or one who’s very competent but has a really nasty attitude?” My wife replied, “The nice one.” At that point, I said, “And that’s exactly why people voted for Biden instead of Trump.” The food, by the way, was very good.
A few days later as I continued thinking about that analogy, I recalled another meal that my family had some time earlier. It was a different restaurant, with a server who was not only nice but also didn’t make any mistakes! Best of both worlds, right? Not quite.
The food was mediocre at best, and it was our second time trying that place. We weren’t happy with the food the first time either, and so we weren’t about to go back for a third try.
We had no idea who cooked the food at either restaurant; we never met him or her. Therefore, it wasn’t really important to us whether the cook were a warm, wonderful human being or an obnoxious boor. All that mattered was that the food tasted good.
On the other hand, we interact with our servers, just as we interact with our supervisors, coworkers, friends and neighbors. Consequently, how they speak to us is important.
Presidents, however, are more like cooks. Granted, they’re not nameless, faceless people hidden away in some kitchen — quite the opposite, in fact — but they do not converse with us directly. They don’t insult us by name.
What’s important is that the “food” they prepare be delicious — a strong economy; a safe society secure from foreign threats, domestic and international terrorism, transnational trespassers, and everyday criminals; and an overall satisfying qualify of life.
Curiously, we also tend to see our presidents as extensions of ourselves. Much like we want our children to have good table manners at a public banquet, we want our presidents to be admired rather than ridiculed and reprehended on the world stage.
That is radically different from our restaurant experiences; do we really care whether those folks way over there at table seven are enjoying their meals and are pleased with the service?
Much like any other gamble we undertake — purchasing a stock, betting on a horse or drafting a fantasy football team — we are loaded with optimism at the onset of voting for a presidential candidate.
We expect that person to provide excellent results and maintain a great disposition. But collectively, we don’t stop and think about what’s most important in a president. If we did, then perhaps when only one of those options is available, we’d have a better sense of which one is really more important.
Finally, you may rather work for the nice boss because if the business goes under, you can always find another job. But if the United States goes under — or at least regresses back to the conditions of the 1970s — it’s not as easy to go find another country.