How important is it to be liked to be an effective leader?

09 December, 2019

Should leaders be tough as nails to inspire respect and hard work? Or does niceness yield better results?

Is it important for my team members to like me? Can being nice make me seem “soft”? Is it best to maintain some distance from my team members? Will a show of strength make people respect me more?

Chances are you’ve asked yourself at least a few of these questions.

How important is it to be liked to be an effective leader? .

Despite the recent focus on the value of kindness and compassion in corporate life, the overall opinion tilts in favour of old-school management: don’t become over-familiar with team members, make it clear who’s in charge and impose authority through firmness. For many leaders, being tough translates into exerting relentless pressure on their team members to produce better output. However, data suggests that this strategy is likely to backfire. Excessive pressure doesn’t enhance performance – it only increases stress. Stressed out team members face increased health risks and are more likely to start looking for new jobs.

If you consistently prioritise being popular over being respected, you may cross over into “likership” territory. Likership means making decisions based primarily on your desire to be liked.

Some studies show that well-liked bosses actually drive better results. In their Harvard Business Review article, Why Likable Leaders Seem More Effective, Charn McAllister, Sherry Moss and Mark Martinko, describe the results of their extensive research, which found that being liked is a key component of effective leadership:

The results are very clear – there is no harm in being liked by your subordinates and our research certainly suggests that it is part of being viewed as an effective leader. This means that well-liked leaders can expect subordinates to consider them as authentic, transformational, ethical, and not abusive. Likewise, teams who like their leaders will be happier at work, go above and beyond what is required of them, experience greater well-being, and perform at a higher level.

At the same time, too much niceness can also be a bad thing. If you consistently prioritise being popular and playing to the audience, you may cross over into “likership” territory. Likership means making decisions based primarily on your desire to be liked. In Leadership is not likership, Joni Naugle elaborates:

When leaders become more concerned with being liked than with leading, the result is bad for everyone. It not only clouds the ability to have the right types of conversations, it ultimately affects the leader’s credibility. If poor behavior is permitted, results will not be met, reflecting poorly on the entire team. The high-performers begin to question whether the leader is connected to reality, and employee engagement dwindles. It’s a continuous downward spiral.

So, this week, my message focuses on how leaders can maximise their effectiveness by balancing kindness with toughness. Start with this simple test from psychologist Ben Michaelis to gauge where you stand on the niceness spectrum:

If about 85 percent of the people you meet like you, you are probably doing something right. If it’s much less than that, you probably not doing enough to get along with others. In contrast, if much more than 85 percent of the people you meet like you, you are probably doing too much to get along.

Here are five ways to try and strike the right balance:

1. Lead with warmth

Starting relationships with warmth creates trust and ultimately makes you a more effective leader. In her book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Harvard professor Amy Cuddy writes that people ask themselves two questions when they first meet you:

  • Can I trust this person?
  • Can I respect this person?

In the world of business leadership, we tend to believe that respect, created by a show of strength and competence, is more important. In fact, while both dimensions are vital, trust is more crucial in the sense that it needs to come first. If the person doesn’t develop an initial feeling of trust towards you, they’re unlikely to see your toughness as something to respect and be inspired by – instead, they’ll probably see you as unapproachable or even threatening.

2. Don’t play the popularity contest

A leader’s job is to lead their team – not be their best friend. It’s great to be approachable, compassionate and develop a bond. What’s not great is worrying so much about your team’s approval that you can’t make tough choices. There are times when giving candid feedback or saying “no” might upset people, even though it’s the right thing to do. As the person in charge, you have to be able to make decisions that will help your team members thrive in the long term, even if that means not being their favourite person for a while.

In practical terms, here’s how you could approach decision-making: Foster an open dialogue, genuinely consider all points of view and then settle on a course of action. While some team members may not agree with your decision, make it clear that everyone is expected to follow through. In other words, welcome frank discussion while still maintaining your authority.

3. Let other people be smart

Trying to demonstrate that you’re always the smartest person in the room doesn’t make you respected; it makes you a know-it-all! Confident leaders have the ability to let other people showcase their competence – in fact, they celebrate the expertise and skills of their team members and create opportunities for them to contribute meaningfully. One way in which you can do this is to ask, instead of telling. In the Harvard Business Review article, Good Leaders Aren’t Afraid to Be Nice, Joe Panepinto explains:

Even if you think you know the answer already, it’s worthwhile to ask someone to articulate it for you. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you hear. In my experience, this has the added benefit of conveying respect for work that has already been done and for the people who have done it. 

4. Manage competition

Authoritarian leaders tend to encourage high levels of competitiveness, which can lead to the formation of cliques and a dog-eat-dog culture. In such a scenario, the group becomes fragmented, which ultimately harms productivity. At the other extreme, non-confrontational leaders prefer to avoid any and all competition, losing out on the opportunity to create some healthy motivation.

Competition, when managed well, can be a huge asset. Good leaders begin by establishing a common team goal as well as a culture of mutual respect and trust. Within this framework, they make space for healthy competition as a way to spur performance. Achievements are seen through two lenses at the same time – as a win for the individual, as well as for the entire group. Victories are celebrated, and losses are turned into opportunities for learning and innovation. This curbs resentment and channels any feelings of hostility into a positive direction.

5. Put team before self

Research led by Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership at New York University, shows that when leaders put others’ interests above their own, they move their followers and inspire greater loyalty. As a result, these team members are likely to become more kind and helpful towards their own colleagues. So, in a way, the entire organisation benefits from committed, generous leadership.

So, while likeability by itself is not enough, some of the attributes that are associated with being liked – such as empathy, politeness, compassion, respectfulness, being approachable and listening to others – can certainly help you become a more effective leader.


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