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Here’s why being likable may make you a less effective leader

Professor Karen Cates of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management finds that likable leaders may be perceived as good leaders but may not fully be achieving what is required of them.

Here’s why being likable may make you a less effective leader
[Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash]

When presented baldly it can seem self-evident, but it is remarkable how few managers really adhere to the approach that when you treat people well, with respect, and give them some responsibility, they are more likely to perform better. This is the core of people-centered—or human-centered—leadership, and it works.

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A swathe of academic and consultancy literature supports this proposition. The Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For outperforms the longitudinal average performance of quoted U.S. businesses by nearly 4% a year over two decades. That is a remarkable return.

Barry-Wehmiller Industries—a conglomerate led by the champion of “Truly Human Leadership,” Bob Chapman, that purchases underperforming and dysfunctional businesses and turns them around with their people-focused approach—reports a CAGR of 18% since its first acquisition in 1987, compared to the S&Ps corresponding average of 10% over the same period.

So why is everyone not just being nicer, more helpful, and more supportive to their employees? In short: Why aren’t we becoming more likable? Karen Cates, a leadership consultant and adjunct professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, observes, “My concern about being over-focused on ‘likability’ is that this becomes a prescription for just being ‘nice in the workplace,’ and while being nice, and being civil is a good thing, it is not how to be a good leader.”

In fact, Cates suggests that merely “putting on a happy face” in an effort to appear likable not only brings limited to no tangible benefits; it may actually lead people to mistrust you, especially if this is a clear change of behavior from a previous one. Cates makes the distinction between how leaders are perceived. Likable leaders may be perceived as good leaders, but they may not fully be achieving what is required of them.

Emotional intelligence studies suggest that adaptability to different contexts is a key capability for effective leaders, and those who can change their approach depending on the shifting demands of a given situation are going to be much more effective.

Leaders should not put likability above effectiveness. There are times when the humor and smiles need to go and a let’s-get-this-done approach is required. Cates goes further: “Even the ‘nasty boss approach’ can be really effective—but in short, small doses—to get everyone’s attention and say ‘Hey, we’ve got to make some changes around here.’ You can then create—with an earnest approach—that more likable persona as you move forward. Likability is a good thing to have in your leadership toolkit, but it shouldn’t be the biggest hammer in the box.”

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Cates recognizes, however, that in a simplistic world, likability is clearly better than a fear-based leadership approach. “Fear-based leadership takes up a lot of energy—keeping people on their toes, always worried about interacting with the boss—and it drives things underground; people hide themselves and hide issues, to keep out of the spotlight. Likability can be the opposite side of that coin as it draws people out. They’re glad to see you because they know something good is going to happen from the exchanges that you have.”

For Cates, this highlights an issue that people sometimes struggle with. While leaders must react in a consistent manner to situations, that does not mean their reaction has to be the same every time. Rather only that they cannot be erratic in their behavior. Urgent situations may require urgent responses, complex ones may require thoughtful analysis, and enduring ones a different approach altogether. All are different reactions, but leaders need to maintain their style of response and apply that to each consistently. “Likability can contribute to a sense of safety, a sense of trust, and that’s really important—as long as it’s consistent. You don’t always have to be likable, but you have to be likable when people are expecting you to be likable.”

While likability is therefore not a panacea or silver bullet for leadership it is still a thing well worth fostering. Cates notes that it is not difficult to be likable with people you get on with, and like-minded with yourself, but the task becomes a lot more challenging with people who you do not click with, and who may rub you up the wrong way.

The first trick is to try and identify commonalities that may not be, and in fact likely will not be, work-related such as places you have visited, sports you are both interested in, and shared hobbies.

The second trick is to increase your mindfulness of the workspace around you. Increase the sensitivity of your antennae for others. “Remember to acknowledge people when you see them. Acknowledge their work, acknowledge their successes. It’s surprising how many folks don’t turn around in the middle of a really tough job and go, ‘Hey, you know, we’re making some great progress here. Thank you.'”

Keep in mind that your colleagues are individuals with lives beyond the workplace as well as in it. Good leaders remember to ask after children who were ill, for instance, but also understand their people’s individual career goals and aspirations. “When people feel that their leaders are trying to help them with the things that are personal to them, not just their personal lives, but their personal career goals, their personal strengths, that mindfulness can make a huge difference to likability.”

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The next level beyond this mindfulness is to build your empathy with both individuals and the team by being aware of their current energy. “I’m a big fan of saying, ‘Boy, this group seems frazzled today,’ or ‘You seem really angry about the situation. We better talk about it.’ Just acknowledging that can make people feel more a part of the team and more effective as a member of the team,” says Cates.

As with any behavior change, these things need to be practiced and iterated to make them essential habits. Being likable is clearly to be encouraged, it helps on a number of fronts—but it is not sufficient in itself to achieve high performance. Alternative leadership behaviors and responses are also needed. The best time to start acquiring and practicing this mix is, as always, right now.


Roddy Millar is a cofounder and editorial director at IEDP Developing Leaders.

This article originally appeared in IEDP Developing Leaders and is reprinted with permission.

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