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Does The President Need To Be Likable To Be Effective?

That's no idle question this election season, when most voters dislike the frontrunners.

 Does The President Need To Be Likable To Be Effective?
[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]

The 2016 election is peculiar for many reasons, one of them being that the leading candidates are so widely disliked. According to the latest Gallup polling, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio are all disliked by more Americans than ones who like them; only John Kasich and Bernie Sanders have positive images overall.

Trump's unfavorability rating, which now stands at 63% according to Gallup, is historically high in the context of modern presidential elections. And Clinton's so-called "likability problem" is so well-known that some pundits—especially those who see it as coded talk for gender issues—sound tired of discussing it.

All this begs the questions: Do you need to be likable in order to be an effective leader? And what's "likability" in the first place?

What We Talk About When We Talk About Likability

To answer those questions, we first have to distinguish between two traits familiar to psychologists: agreeableness and sincerity.

Someone's "agreeableness" is measured by how much they want others to like them. Because agreeable people place a high priority on being liked, they tend to have good social skills; they listen well to others, respond to their needs, and generally create the impression that they're nice to spend time with. Disagreeable people don’t care much whether other people like them. They criticize others even when that makes them seem mean; they disregard others because they're much more concerned about themselves.

Sincerity is equally intuitive. It's how much you believe your interaction with someone reflects their core beliefs. If you suspect they're just telling you what you want to hear, you may see them as insincere. We tend to prefer people who we believe are acting authentically to those who seem to gauge what they say based on what they think will resonate best.

Things get tricky in democratic elections, though. Not only do we judge candidates according to both properties simultaneously, we also size up the contenders in relationship to one another.

In the 2000 election, for example, George W. Bush was generally seen as more agreeable than Al Gore. On the campaign trail, Bush struck an easy rapport with strangers. By comparison, Gore came off stiff and forced. And in 2004, when Bush ran for re-election, John Kerry faced a similar challenge: Critics said that both of Bush's opponents seemed "wooden" and stiff. In general, that meant voters in both elections were more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to Bush when evaluating the candidates' policy proposals.

Perception Is Everything

The 2016 campaign is fascinating because none of the biggest vote-getters—Trump, Cruz, Sanders, and Clinton—are widely perceived as especially warm and congenial to others (for example, just watch one of the more recent Republican debates for proof). And indeed, perception is key: It's impossible to say whether one candidate genuinely is more agreeable or sincere than another. The only thing voters can gauge—and that pollsters, pundits, and the candidates themselves can track—is how agreeable or sincere they appear to the electorate.

In one way, at least, Clinton offers an interesting contrast to her opponents. A common narrative in the media is that she wants to be liked by others but just doesn't connect well with them. To compensate, some feel (fairly or otherwise) that she changes her positions to fit whatever audience she's courting, and often misses the mark. As a result, especially in the eyes of younger liberals, Sanders seems more sincere.

Like Sanders, Trump and Cruz don't appear to suffer from a sincerity deficit in voters' minds. Among their supporters, they're seen as people who say unpopular things without caring if people like them for it. That creates something of a split among the wider pool of voters, though. In general, Sanders, Trump, and Cruz supporters appreciate their perceived candor, while those who oppose those candidates' positions also tend to dislike them personally, and find them disagreeable.

When Sincerity Matters More

In elections where one candidate is considered highly agreeable, the disagreeable candidates often suffer. That was one source of Barack Obama's victory over Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination. But where perceived agreeableness is in short supply, sincerity plays a more decisive role.

This pattern has implications for leaders outside politics as well, with the relative values of sincerity and agreeableness in the likability equation switching places depending on the circumstances. People don't necessarily need to feel their boss is someone they'd like to go out to dinner with, for example. Because managers aren't elected, they don't need to stress their agreeableness in order to secure their jobs.

So the short answer to the overarching likability question is, "It depends." By and large, sincerity may be a little less fungible than agreeableness; in this election, at any rate, the perception of the former may be more important than that of the latter. Leaders should be seen to follow through on what they say they'll do. They should also be willing to contradict received wisdom if they believe what they're saying is true. And they need to be seen as willing to own their mistakes whenever they make them.

Being seen as sincere ups your chances that others will follow your vision. But leaders viewed as agreeable yet insincere run the risk that followers will question their vision rather than buy into it—and for the candidates, anyway, there's not much to like about that.

Related: A Supercut of Donald Trump's Most Controversial Moments

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