Being Liked Vs. Being Respected As A Leader

In my experience of being a boss, coaching bosses, and being bossed around by bosses over the years, I’ve come to believe that most leaders are more concerned with being liked than being respected. This isn’t good for business, but it is good for average workers whose bosses are too nice to deal with their mediocrity.

The desire to be liked in itself isn’t a bad thing. People tend to want to work with people they like, follow people they like, and attend the annual corporate whirlyball team building event with a leader they at the very least don’t not like. We’ve been talking with clients a lot lately about the relationship between having a high-performing team and their relationships with their teams– specifically encouraging them to get to know and like the folks on their teams and to be likable too. But there is a likability sweet spot. Wanting to be liked too much rears its ugly head when it causes us to make stupid decisions and stupidly not make decisions that need to be made. We do this when we move into the likability sour spot– caring too much about what our teams think of us and not trusting that they’re grown-ups who can handle a little tough feedback every now and then.  

I used to care too much about what my team thought of me. I let them get away with stupid stuff because I didn't want to hurt their feelings and then have them not perform. I'd go home frustrated that George wasn't filling out his stats report on time; that Janice wasn't on track to hit her sales goal again; that Ramone was still telling pathological lies. I'd complain to The Husband about them at night and yet do nothing about it. Or I'd let things build and then call a meeting with sweeping overhauls of ‘Here's How It's Going To Be From Now On,’ making policy changes or reinforcing existing rules, really only because of one person. I was exhausted by working around them, caring more about whether they liked me and were motivated to work with me than motivated to do their jobs well. Little did I know that I was valuing their feelings more than my own (cue self-help alert buzzer here)– and that I was ripping them off at the same time.  Holding valuable feedback you have for someone inside does two things: it makes you go crazy, and it robs the recipients of the chance to get better, grow, and contribute better to the team.

I’ve also come to realize that being liked and being respected aren’t mutually exclusive. Making the less-popular decisions—ones that your team ultimately respects you for—doesn’t have to mean that you’re categorically unlikeable (unless you’re a management monster). It’s true that making tough reorganization decisions to save your business unit, for example, will absolutely make you the least popular person for a while. No one ever wants to buy the guy who cut all the costs the first beer, and shelving a floundering project won’t win you friends the day you deliver the bad news. But this isn’t about hardening up and resigning yourself to a life of being respected but lonely. When not-so-easy decisions are delivered with care and concern, there will always be room for connection and relationships with your team.

Your credibility soars when people see you doing the right thing handling issues promptly and with confidence, and most of all, with integrity. The secret in the sauce is that when you are respected as a leader, you’ll often be liked as a byproduct. So, in the realm of caring about what people think of you, wouldn't you rather do the things that will earn the respect of your team– even if it’s not today, but a year down the road when they look back on the reorg and think, “You did the right thing.”