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Executive Corner – Being Respected vs. Being Liked

Michael Clegg | 01/19/2022

When I meet with leaders that are new in their roles, I cover a lot of key topic areas.  One of the first things that I ask them about is how important it is to them to be liked by their team.  It’s important to identify how much weight your new leader puts on being liked. Margaret Thatcher said, “if you just set out to be liked, you will be prepared to compromise on anything at any time and you would achieve nothing.”   

Most would choose to be liked AND respected.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be liked unless it is absent of being respected.  Paradoxically, those that respect you will usually end up liking you in the long run.  Gaining someone’s respect often comes due to your ability to make them do the things they don’t want to do, to help them get what they want.    

According to Inc. magazine article by Deborah Grayson Riegel, Individuals that tend to be liked tend to: 

  • Seek positive attention and approval 
  • Engage in gossip rather than giving direct feedback 
  • Try to please everyone 
  • Make promises they can’t keep 
  • Keep strong opinions to themselves 
  • Flood people with credit, compliments and praise 
  • Play favorites (but pretend they don’t) 
  • Use information as leverage, withholding or giving it away 
  • Give people tasks they enjoy rather than assignments that stretch and challenge them 
  • Focus more on how people feel (in general, and about them personally) than about achieving outcomes 

Additionally, the same article recognizes the importance of being respected – with or without being liked – are more inclined to: 

  • Tell the truth, even if it’s unpopular 
  • Explain their thinking behind the difficult decisions they make 
  • Acknowledge the elephant in the room, even if they can’t fix it 
  • Say no when they need to 
  • Be open-minded and decisive 
  • Give credit when it’s due to others and also take it when it’s due themselves 
  • Tolerate feelings of disappointment, frustration, sadness and anger in themselves and others 
  • Hold people accountable for their results 
  • Be consistent and fair in setting rules and expectations 
  • Set and honor boundaries for themselves and others 
  • Deliver negative feedback directly and in a timely manner 
  • Ask for feedback regularly and then act on it 
  • Apologize when they make mistakes and then move on 
  • Model the behavior they expect from others 

Rarely, have I seen a leader that was well respected that was not liked.  It has happened but it is rare.  Leaders that have respect that are not liked are usually disliked by individuals that lack their own personal values.  They lack, commitment, accountability/dependability, and other behaviors that help drive trust and engagement.   

A common mistake from a leader that wants to be liked is seeking consensus in the decision-making process.  I was having a discussion with a client, Beth, a Senior Executive that I am coaching.  Beth has a new leader, Shawn, that is struggling to gain credibility with his team.  I asked Beth, “have you been involved with any of his team meetings or observed his decision-making process?”  Beth had recently attended a Staff Meeting of his.  Shawn’s team was having an issue resolving work orders in a timely fashion which was creating delays in their client’s ability to get their work completed on time.  The primary issue was that there was not a formal process to resolving these work orders.  Therefore, every team member resolved them a different way which creates very different resolution time. 

A seasoned leader would see right away that it would be impossible to get consensus on this topic.  What should have been a 10 to 15 minute discussion on finding the best possible outcome, ended up lasting over an hour with no resolution on the topic.  The team left the meeting frustrated and their clients will get frustrated due to their inability to assist them.  This really has a snowball effect and requires senior level intervention.  What simply seems to be a small issue of consensus was Shawn’s inability to make an unpopular decision based on his need to be liked.  Let’s play out a different scenario with Beth’s new leader. 

Shawn comes into the staff meeting understanding that they need to walk out with a resolution on getting work orders resolved in a timely manner.  He acknowledges to the team that his solution is “getting one repeatable process that everyone adapts to in order to get their client to a resolution in the most efficient manner.” He asks that each member of the team for their thoughts, challenges, and suggestions to solve this problem.  In most cases, the cream will rise to the top.  Let’s pretend in this case it didn’t and more discussion was required.  After these discussions, Shawn agrees to move forward with two of the ideas and discusses each in detail to make sure he understands them completely.  Shawn will take these ideas and do the following: 

  1. Decide on one of the ideas as resolution to their problem and call another meeting to roll it out to the team. 
  1. If he still is uncertain, he will then ask Beth for assistance to gain additional insight.  Once he receives this insight, he makes the decision. 

The bottom line, Shawn’s team needs immediate resolution because every day that these delays continue, the user experience is deteriorating, and complaints are rising.  Shawn makes the decision and rolls the decision out to the team along with any additional training or insight that his team might need to integrate this into their daily process.  For some of the team members, this decision will be unpopular because they will have to alter their processes to accommodate the new version.  However, with time and execution, their client complaints will decrease, and these work orders will be completed in a timely manner. If their service levels increase due to the new process, their performance will naturally increase.  At this point, Shawn’s team will not remember the new process decision as being unpopular, they will only feel the results of today. Therefore, the team will respect Shawn’s decision.   

General George S. Patton has a famous quote, which I will paraphrase and leave out the “violence” portion.  I paraphrase, “a good plan today, is better than a perfect plan next week.”  Decisions need to be made and selecting the best version of the plan takes longer when seeking consensus.  Leaders need to take the available information and make decisions and work to get the team’s commitment to that plan.  Having someone’s motivation to being liked could cause delay and ultimately not getting to an acceptable solution.  Beware of new leaders and help coach them about this. 

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