I'm the Boss! Why Should I Care If You Like Me?

Harvard Business Review

Many people assume that it's possible for a person to be an effective leader without being likable. That is technically true, but you may not like the odds. In a study of 51,836 leaders, we found just 27 who were rated at the bottom quartile in terms of likability but in the top quartile in terms of overall leadership effectiveness — that's approximately one out of 2,000.

Our likability index, based on data collected from 360 assessments, measures a broad set of behaviors that go far beyond smiling and having a pleasant personality. To see the complete list, and take a self-assessment of your personal likability, click here.

Likability sounds like an immutable trait — something people either have or don't. But our experience in working with thousands of leaders suggests otherwise. Our 360 data from these 50,000+ leaders highlighted seven key steps executives can take to substantially increase their likability.

  • Increase positive emotional connections with others. Just like the flu or a cold, emotions are contagious. If a leader is angry or frustrated, those feelings will spread to others. Conversely, if a leader is positive and optimistic, those emotions also spread. Be aware of your emotional state and work to spread the positive emotions.
  • Display rock solid integrity. Do others trust you to keep your commitments and promises? Are others confident that you will be fair and do the right thing? We like leaders we trust; we dislike those we distrust.
  • Cooperate with others. Some leaders believe that they are in competition with others in the organization but the purpose of an organization is to unite employees to work together in a common purpose.
  • Be a coach, mentor, and teacher. Think about someone who has helped you develop or learn a new skill. How do you feel about that person? Most people have fond and positive memories of coaches and mentors. Helping others develop is a gift that is never forgotten.
  • Be an inspiration. Most leaders know very well how to drive for results. They demand excellence. They insist that employees achieve stretch targets. In other words they push. And the best bosses do this as well. But that's not all they do. The most successful leaders are also effective at pulling. They roll up their sleeves when necessary and pitch in with the team. They communicate powerfully. Inspiring leaders, as you might expect, are more likeable.
  • Be visionary and future focused. When employees do not clearly understand where they're headed and how they'll get there, they become frustrated and dissatisfied, feeling like passengers with no control and few options except complaining. Sharing a vision of the future and helping team members understand how to get there inspires confidence: It's hard to like a leader who's lost in the wilderness.
  • Ask for feedback and make an effort to change. Our 360 data show clearly that most people rate themselves more likable than their bosses, peers, and direct reports do. How can you bridge that gap? As the graph below demonstrates, there's a strong correlation between a leader's likability and the extent to which they ask for and respond to feedback from others. Feedback from others helps leaders to understand the impact (positive or negative) that they have on others.

Why Leaders Need to Ask for Advice

You can be more likeable. Identify two of the actions from the list above that would most help you in your current situation. A great way to start would be to ask for feedback and ask team members to identify which activities would have the most value to them. Make a plan, identifying some specific steps you will take to improve, and then stick to it. Ask others for feedback on your progress.

And, oh by the way, if you are a man, this is even more important for you to consider, because in all probability, you are less liked than your female counterparts, and that's hindering your effectiveness as a leader.

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