3 Things Effective Leaders Know About Being Likable

The social etiquette you’d use at a cocktail party doesn’t translate to the board room.

3 Things Effective Leaders Know About Being Likable
[Photo: Flickr user Anne Worner]

Many leaders already know that commanding the respect of their team members can be a tricky business. If they’re either too feared on one hand or too well liked on the other, they risk losing their effectiveness.


One reason why striking that balance is so hard is because it cuts against the social etiquette we’ve learned since childhood. In order to connect with people, we’re taught to try to be liked. Doing anything to compromise our likability can feel uncomfortable, especially at work: If no one likes to work with us, we worry, how can we possibly get anything done?

But the truth is it isn’t a zero-sum game. Especially for leaders, likability has its limits. That , but it does mean asserting yourself in ways you might not consider polite at a cocktail party–and doing it strategically. Here are three things effective leaders understand about towing the line between being liked and being respected.

1. Being Nice Doesn’t Always Get You Ahead

NPR’s This American Life once did an experiment to see whether a waitress who was especially friendly to customers earned more tips than a waitress who acted more aloof. The results were surprising.

Not only did the waitress who smiled and was more engaging typically not get higher tips, on average she actually earned slightly less. Does being nice actually pay off less than we think?

A similar phenomenon can occur in the workplace, but it isn’t as simple as choosing to be either cheerful or chilly. After all, it isn’t as though powerful people don’t smile at all. They only smile when it’s right for the situation. When they do, it’s sincere, not something they do in order to project a certain image–which people can usually see through anyway.

2. Speaking Up Makes A Difference


Years ago, I was in a meeting with a group of top executives to discuss a campaign we were going to pitch to a potential client. It was early in my career, and didn’t have much seniority. But when I saw an opportunity to voice what I thought was a valuable opinion–one that went against what others in the room were saying–I did.

Afterward, one of my bosses came up to me and praised me for speaking up. It may be more comfortable to be deferential, to just nod and listen, especially if it’s your first few weeks or months on the job. But when you’re confident your point of view is valid, let it be heard. You don’t need to be pushy or single anybody out whose position differs from yours, but you can politely voice your own conviction. At a very minimum, it creates the impression that you’re confident enough to do it.

Some of us hold back because we don’t want to be rude or sound inexperienced, and we worry we’ll come off like we think we know what we’re talking about even if we don’t.

But by not speaking up you can risk worse. Sure, you might blend in and be seen as easy to work with, but you won’t be remembered–or, possibly, considered for a promotion when the time comes. Sometimes you have to speak your mind, even if your voice shakes a little at first.

3. Playing Nice Can Be Counterproductive

Social etiquette tells us to smile, listen, and don’t interrupt. But these rules don’t have much bearing in the boardroom. One executive I spoke with recently sounded exasperated by this type of culture. “How do I get a word in edgewise during meetings?” he asked.


The answer is to interject–where appropriate. You may feel like you’re cutting someone off, but the fact is that interrupting is usually acceptable because the goal of important meetings is to find a solution to a problem in a limited amount of time. You aren’t having a polite, leisurely conversation with a stranger.

In fact, there’s an elegant way to interrupt others without causing resentment. Skilled interrupters use phrases like:

  • “I see your point, and…
  • “I think what you’re saying is important because…
  • “To continue with the point you were making…”

These expressions don’t cause trouble because they aren’t aggressive or threatening, and they don’t belittle others’ contributions.

Effective leaders know that if they have something valuable to bring to the table and interrupting is the only way for it to be heard, it’s their responsibility to make sure it’s heard.


Pay attention to the times when your anxiety about appearing rude or out of line is holding you back. Then decide whether what you have to contribute is valuable. If it is, bite the bullet, and make your thoughts known. You may become less conventionally “likable,” but you’ll earn respect and influence–which is more valuable by far.

Felicia Spahr is a charisma and leadership coach who helps high-achieving introverts become better leaders. You can find her at How To Be Instantly Irresistible.