When people become managers, they are often told they can choose to be liked or to be effective. Management means making tough decisions that will disappoint former peers. You need to be courageous. You need to be tough. You need to jettison any desire to be liked, let alone loved.
But new research suggests the key to being considered a good leader by subordinates is to be likeable. “If subordinates like their leaders, they will also say that their leaders are transformational, ethical, authentic, not abusive and that they have strong leader-employee relations,” Charn McAllister, an assistant professor of management and organizational development at Northeastern University, Sherry Moss, a professor of organizational studies at Wake Forest University, and Mark Martinko, an emeritus faculty member at Florida State University, report in Harvard Business Review.
Likeability seems important when we choose political leaders. It may have sunk the presidential aspirations of Hillary Clinton – twice. It came up directly in the last debate of the 2008 New Hampshire primary. When confronted by a questioner on how lack of likeability was hurting her campaign, Ms. Clinton acknowledged that Barack Obama was likeable and he kindly, if somewhat backhandedly, remarked, “you’re likeable enough, Hillary.”
Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s favourability surged after the federal election campaign’s leadership debate, suggesting his likeability also had shot up. In the same vein, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s likeability seemed to decline over the campaign. In political leadership, of course, likeability is created at a distance and intermingled with policy and partisanship. At work, we know our leaders from closer range, even if parts of their character and behaviour can remain obscure.
The academics came up with a five-question survey of leadership likeability, using a seven-point scale, with one being strongly disagree on each item and seven strongly agree:
- I feel positively about my supervisor.
- I like my supervisor.
- I like to work with my supervisor.
- I value the relationship I have with my supervisor.
- I have been happy with my supervisor.
If you’re a manager, you’re welcome to test yourself by giving it to subordinates. Or you can use it to evaluate your own manager. The average score was 5.2 in the sample, so higher than that means the person being rated is better than average.
Likeability probably starts with taking time for employees in a world of haste, paying interest to their needs, concerns and words. It involves recognizing each person is an individual, and requires different approaches, to match the situation. Warmth, humanity and humility are critical. “As a general principle, a ‘cold fish’ – meaning a totally unemotional or impassive person – does not make a good leader,” consultant John Adair writes in How to Lead Others.
It means finding the softer you, but not being a soft touch. You still want subordinates – and yourself – to be accountable. Indeed, consultant Hernani Alves argues in Balanced Accountability that accountability is love.
He outlines three forms of accountability, starting with personal accountability, in which you hold yourself answerable and lead by example. Positive accountability – where the magic happens, he says, and why his employees gave him a Best Leader Award – involves building a positive environment for employees. Finally, performance accountability is what we traditionally assume is accountability, but he prefers we apply through coaching rather than harsh scrutiny. Together, that balanced accountability will win hearts, he believes, and maximize performance.
Inc. magazine contributing editor Jeff Haden summed up likeable souls neatly with these nine factors: They don’t talk a lot, don’t blame, don’t interrupt, don’t complain, aren’t controlling, don’t criticize but instead appreciate the differences in others, don’t preach and don’t dwell on the past.
Steven Goldstein, a congressional lawyer, civil-rights activist and one-time producer for The Oprah Winfrey Show, became consumed with what made a person a likeable witness, TV guest or public figure. He came up with dozens of traits, but boils them down to eight for his book The Turn On: Captivation, which is drawing attention with passion and presence; hope, the optimistic promise of a better tomorrow; authenticity; relatability to others; protectiveness; reliability; perceptiveness, the ability to detect nuance; and compassion. He cites actor Tom Hanks’s likeability as flowing from relatability – his gift of appearing like everyone else, a gift leaders might want to cultivate rather than trying to climb on a pedestal. “Likeability affects what we do, whether we’re aware of it or not,” he writes. “Likeability is leverage.”
That fits with the leadership study by the three academics. Don’t scorn likeability. View it as a gateway to effective leadership. Consider how likeable you are as a leader and how to improve.
- Ottawa customer-service consultant Shaun Belding, who for the past decade has collected media stories on consumer interactions, says in the past two years the bad stories have become increasingly extreme. In 2019 he has collected 25 possible candidates for the best customer-service list, 22 for the worst service list, and more than 150 for a new category: hideous customer service.
- Don’t automatically turn away job applicants who are currently unemployed. HR specialist Suzanne Lucas says we usually view them as contaminated, but there could be valid reasons they are without a job and you could gain from hiring them.
- British historian B. H. Liddell Hart wrote this advice for leaders: “Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save face. Put yourself in his shoes – so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil – nothing is so self-blinding.”
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