Can Leaders Be Both Likable and Respected?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Every leader’s ideal relationship to their subordinates involves some measure of likability and respect. A likable leader will get along with their subordinates on a personal level, and they’ll be able to enjoy each other’s company, which can make the workday more enjoyable and boost morale. A respectable leader will command attention, discipline, and obedience from their subordinates, which will lead to a more organized workplace, and a firmer hierarchy in the organization.

The problem is, respectability and likability exist, in some ways, on a spectrum. Taking an action that makes you more likable might lose you some respect, and taking an action that commands respect could make you less likable. So is it possible to be both liked and respected? And if not, which one is more important?

Respect as a Necessity

First, as a leader, understand that respect is a necessity, and it can exist both as a form of compliance, and in a freely given form. For example, an employee might follow your commands because they know they may be fired if they don’t; this is respect as a form of compliance. Another employee might admire your leadership style, and personally wish to follow your directives so they can align themselves with that style; this respect is freely given.

Regardless of whether this respect is freely given or given in the name of compliance, respect is an absolute necessity for a leader; if your workers don’t respect you, they may not follow your orders when you need them to, or may be exceptionally difficult to manage. For this reason, respect takes priority over likability.

The Problem With Likability

So why is likability a problem? It isn’t a problem, necessarily, but it can influence the following effects:

· Diminished value. In some ways, a boss that’s more likable is a boss that’s less valuable. Being friendly with someone establishes you as a peer; under ordinary circumstances, being seen as a peer can lead to more trust and tighter relationships, but if you want to be a leader, bringing yourself down to the level of “peer” can decrease others’ perceptions of your skills and abilities. For example, in at least one experiment, waiters who treated their patrons with exceptional friendliness actually made less money in tips than their colder, more neutral counterparts; there are several potential explanations for this, but the bottom line is that adding friendliness doesn’t inherently boost your value, especially in a professional environment.

· Compromises and deviations. Being “friendly” inherently means being more agreeable. A friendly person is one who’s willing to make compromises for another person, or who deviates from set standards to accomplish some personal task; for example, you might make more exceptions for someone’s lateness in order to be seen as friendlier and more accommodating. Occasionally, there’s nothing wrong with this, but if you’re always making compromises just to be more likable, you’ll lose respect and authority as a leader.

· Personal vs. professional. Friendliness is also inherently personal, rather than professional, and if you want to be respected as a leader, you need to err on the side of professionalism. Research shows that having friendships in the work environment improves morale and productivity, not to mention employee retention — but those studies only focus on friendships between peers. If you want to be treated like you’re at a higher level, you need to put yourself on a higher level.

The Effects of Unlikability

That being said, likability can be a good thing for a boss — at least to some extent. If you’re unlikable, you’ll see some nasty side effects:

· Office culture. If you’re too firm, uncompromising, or staunch in your demeanor, the entire company culture could suffer at your hands — the way it did at Uber under Travis Kalanick’s leadership. A toxic workplace culture isn’t going to be good for the employees — even if they seem to follow your direction.

· Fear or intimidation. If the respect you command turns to fear, or intimidation, your employees will be afraid to tell you what they really think. Employee turnover will rise, and you won’t be able to trust anything your subordinates tell you.

· Team dynamics. Beyond that, if you’re actively disliked, it’s going to make it nearly impossible to get anything done as a team. Even if you’re a rung above everyone else, you’ll rely on your coworkers to accomplish your goals, and alienating them can interfere strongly with your eventual results.

Finding the Balance

It’s valuable to think of your image as a leader as a personal brand, and you’re in control of the dynamics. Being too likable and friendly can cost you some measure of respect, but focusing on respect so much that it makes you unlikable is also a problem.

Instead, strive to find a balance between these two dimensions, and create the character you want to exhibit as a leader.

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