Want to Be A Better Leader? Be A More Likable Person. Really.

In a previous post I referenced research in a Harvard Business Review article that found a devastatingly large inverse correlation between lack of likability and kindness among leaders on the one hand and leadership effectiveness among those same individuals on the other hand. In other words, if you are in the lowest quartile for likability, you have a 1 in 2,000 chance of being in the highest quartile for leadership effectiveness. Leaders should probably care about this—and not just because it’s “better” to be liked than not.

The reason likability and kindness matter, and the reason that unlikable and unkind leaders are profoundly less effective, is because of the impact that those behaviors have on the people within the sphere of a leader’s influence.

So, what can you do to improve your likability as a leader? The research suggests the following:

Engage your colleagues and employees from a place of positive emotion.

Leaders who instinctively use the language of optimism vs. pessimism are rated as more likable and more effective. Employees engage projects with more confidence and commitment if they believe their boss believes they will be successful. Conversely, anger and frustration de-motivate employees and make them less effective and more risk-averse.

Commit yourself to the highest integrity.

Interestingly, employees associate likability with integrity. The psychology behind this is that we are more apt to like those we trust and we are more apt to trust those with high integrity.

Focus on cooperation over competition.

Leaders who use and model cooperation are more likable because they are less threatening. Competition has a place in motivating behavior, but leaders whose primary modus operandi is to pit people against one another are not associated with likability or kindness.

Lead through coaching and teaching

People generally have fond memories of those who have helped them improve, build skills, grow confidence, etc., through mentoring and coaching. This approach also improves a leader’s effectiveness because it improves the employee’s effectiveness.

Be future oriented with a compelling vision

Interestingly, it turns out that one component of likability in a leader is confidence in where the organization is going. In other words, we tend to be drawn to leaders who make us feel confident and comfortable. The opposite makes us feel nervous and worried.

Be open to feedback and change

The research shows that one of the strongest correlations is between likability and openness to feedback and change—and to actively soliciting feedback. This makes sense. Leaders who are arrogant and aloof are simply less likable. They are also perceived as less kind. And, they are less effective because they are more likely to continue pursuing initiatives, strategies, etc., that are inappropriate because they are not open to feedback and changing course.

In short, if you care about your effectiveness as a leader, you can’t ignore how people perceive your likability and kindness. The good news about the Zenger-Folkman findings, though, is that you don’t need to become stellar at all of the options noted above. In fact, they suggest choosing just two of them that resonate most with you and making a concerted effort to do well at those two things. You can add more later over time!

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