You have to be willing to be an unpopular leader

Dr. Rebecca Schalm,

We are coming to the end of a municipal election campaign in my home town, as well as in a lot of other places. I will openly declare that I find Politics (capital P) distasteful. Campaigns tend to transport me back to high school, where politics were a sliver away from a blatant popularity contest. Candidates are busying looking for policy stances that will appeal to the broadest base of constituents in order to get elected. Everyone works exceedingly hard at striving to be popular. In the public sphere, to encounter a leader who doesn’t actually care about being liked, about being popular, is a conundrum with which we, the voting public, struggle. We don’t understand it, and it makes us nervous.

Can popular leaders be effective?
In the corporate world, we want our leaders to be respected rather than liked. As investors and employees we count on them to make difficult, sometimes unpopular, decisions. Because we know business isn’t always pretty and, if the organization is to thrive, sometimes tough actions need to be taken. Leaders who are seen as striving to be liked, rather than respected, lose credibility, confidence and support. In general, leaders who focus on being popular over all else may be liked, but are rarely respected.

The consequences of striving to be liked
Striving to be liked can be an effective strategy if you expect your tenure to be short-lived or your team to be in transition. Problems start to emerge when such a leader sticks around. What becomes obvious to everyone is that a popular leader is an inconsistent leader. To satisfy employee A means doing something that will offend employee B or C or D. Before you know it, you are juggling more balls than you can manage. But because people kind of like you they often don’t work very hard to replace you. After all, who wouldn’t want a boss who is always working hard to earn your vote? But it is critical to understand that just because they like you, it doesn’t mean they respect you. And when you don’t have the respect of your team, leadership shifts from engendering support to cajoling compliance. And then you are no longer in charge; instead, you are an object of manipulation.

Recommended reading: Be a People Person: Effective Leadership Through Effective Relationships

It isn’t only with your team where your respect diminishes, however. Your reputation across the organization can suffer. You may be seen as someone who is well-liked, good with people, but not very effective. Your standards and expectations are lax. Your group doesn’t perform at the same level as your peers’. People start to realize that, even though issues are pointed out, and you acknowledge them, you never actually do anything to correct them. Your career stalls or drifts. And you don’t know why.

Striving for respect
I often see leaders struggling with how to balance the desire to be both friend and boss, not an uncommon struggle for those intrinsically motivated by a need for affiliation in leadership positions. All the characteristics that got them there – empathy, good interpersonal skills, approachability, kindness – contribute to their success in management. The shadow side is when they struggle with uncomfortable tasks involving people – giving critical feedback, dismissing people, reassigning responsibilities, coaching around performance issues, restructuring, holding people accountable, confronting peers, saying ‘no’, challenging senior leaders or customers.

Leaders who want to be liked by direct reports and colleagues have a strong foundation from which to build.

But areas where they might need to take a second, harder look and improve include:

1)    Set higher expectations around performance. A good technique for testing whether your expectations are high enough is to ask others – peers, even members of your team – for their perceptions of your people and their performance. If you find your own opinion consistently higher, you may need to re-calibrate.

2)    Be understanding, but less lenient. If people are consistently under-delivering or you find yourself justifying performance on a regular basis, you probably need to be firmer in what you expect and provide consequences when people fail to deliver.

3)    Have more uncomfortable conversations. If you find yourself avoiding or working around difficult conversations with people, it is time to re-assess. This is an area where you likely need some formal skill-building and practice.

4)    Follow through on decisions even when you know they will upset people. If you find you always find a way to compromise and avoid upsetting the apple cart, it is unlikely you are doing your job as a leader.

Can we really afford leaders, in business as well as politics, whose key driver is their own popularity?

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