Most leaders (psychopaths aside, perhaps) enjoy being liked. We appreciate the little gestures and the subtle social cues that indicate that people like working with us, they like our style, they appreciate our contribution.
All things being equal, it is indeed a good thing that people like you. This means that they are more receptive to your input, they are more willing to help you, they are better prepared to go the extra mile. The opposite is clearly undesirable: if people dislike you as their leader, they are going to be less happy, less creative, less inspired. Not a good thing. So a certain interest in how the people you lead feel about you, is natural and necessary. Fortunately, many of the things leaders do that contribute to people liking them are productive and beneficial: listening deeply to the people they lead, showing respect, giving encouraging feedback, signaling appreciation.
But give ‘being liked’ too much attention, and it becomes debilitating. Leaders rapidly lose effectiveness when it becomes important for them to be liked. They start shying away from giving tough messages. They avoid difficult choices that may be unpopular. They let conflict fester. They become reactive and lose focus. As a result, their integrity can easily be questioned.
Striking a good balance where you ensure you command healthy respect and at the same time avoid pursuing popularity can be challenging at times. Which battles do you pick? How much do you soften tough messages? How long do you choose to wait before making difficult choices?
I recently observed an inspiring example of such balance. I was working closely with a global team of very talented leaders – the team members came from more than a dozen countries from five continents. The team members had not worked together before and so a natural level of forming and storming was going on. Given the diversity of cultures and styles represented, there was clearly some bruising of egos as the team tackled a complex design challenge. At one point, Alan was at the flip chart, drawing and explaining his idea to the rest of the team. Charlie, who was listening, clearly disagreed, became impatient, got out of his chair, went up to the board, took the pen from Alan and started to explain why Alan’s idea was not practical and how his own approach would work much better.
Alan was livid. He was so taken aback by this behavior that he went silent – perhaps choosing not to say anything lest his fury take the form of unprofessional epithets. Charlie seemed completely oblivious to the anger he was causing – not just with Alan, but with the rest of the team, who felt that he violated basic rules of teamwork. The tension was high. Most people present could feel that this was a critical juncture for the team. What happened now would contribute strongly to the forming – or the destruction – of this team. Calmly, Brooke, who had been observing, got out of her chair, walked over to Alan and Charlie and addressed Charlie: “Did you notice what you just did and the effect it had?” She continued to explain that while Charlie’s enthusiasm and energy were laudable and well intentioned, his behavior was utterly unacceptable. Charlie was surprised by such clear and direct feedback – offered not out of frustration, but out of care for the team as a whole, for Alan who had been slighted and for Charlie – who was ‘stepping in it’ without noticing. Brooke’s intervention shaped the team in an admirable way. It took less than a minute, but it set the team on a new course. As I observed Brooke, it struck me that she exhibited two strengths: i) strong social awareness and ii) healthy disregard for being liked.
Reflecting on the profiles of the more than a thousand leaders I have coached and served, it strikes me that they can gainfully be considered along two axes: social awareness and the need to be liked.