Is likeability getting in your way? - Michelle Gibbings

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Many years ago, I worked with a leader who wanted everyone to like them. There was an upside to this because it meant they’d often say ‘yes’ to my requests. The downside was that their desire for likeability meant they didn’t like making unpopular or hard decisions, even when it was the best course of action.

I’d frequently discover that I was working on the same thing as a colleague, with both of us independently believing we had the decision-making authority to lead the work. We would stumble across this confusion when we were both someway down the track of the work. When we approached our boss on the issue, they responded, ‘Oh, I knew the two of you would figure it out eventually’. Not only was it frustrating, but it also wasted time and energy. Fortunately, my colleague and I had a good working relationship. If not, the negative impact would have been far more significant.

A leader who strives for likeability may think their intent is good. But suppose likeability means you’re shying away from the tough decisions, managing conflict or leading the way. In that case, it’s a characteristic that won’t help you, your team or organisation get the outcomes they need to progress.

When you want everyone to like you, you avoid giving constructive feedback. You step away from having conversations that matter and step over or sidestep issues that require your attention.

Shift the striving
Ditching the desire for likeability doesn’t mean you start being a hard, mean, uncompromising leader.

Instead, strive for kindness, caring and compassion so you are considerate and genuinely interested and invested in your team’s welfare. You can be nice and set the standard and hold people accountable (including yourself) to commitments and actions.

When you are kind, you don’t just think about your needs. You think about the needs of those around you.

When you care, you show genuine concern for the well-being of colleagues and team members. You are ready to listen, be interested, show empathy and provide support.

Lastly, when you show compassion, you connect with people on a deeper level. You recognise the common humanity that binds us and accept that being human means we aren’t perfect, and we all struggle at times.

Make it matter
Being kind, caring for your team and showing compassion for yourself and others aren’t just feel-good and soft sentiments. They play a pivotal role in creating a healthy and connected team environment.

Studies consistently show that workplaces with a strong culture of caring, compassion, and kindness have employees with better overall well-being and mental health. Much of this is because employees feel valued and supported.

Associate Professor at Queen’s University, Jacoba Lilius and colleagues found through a series of studies that people who experience compassion at work are deeply affected in terms of their emotions and their understanding of themselves, their colleagues and their organisation. These experiences are also “… likely to have significant impacts on a variety of longer-term work attitudes, behaviours, and performance-and health-related outcomes”.

When team members feel supported and valued, they are happier and healthier at work. In turn, that builds and strengthens their ability to adapt and resiliently move through hurdles and challenges. Your team are more likely to collaborate effectively, share ideas, and help each other. This also means it will facilitate smoother conflict resolution because employees are more likely to talk about issues and seek resolution when they feel their concerns are heard and respected.

The flow on impacts to productivity and performance is clear, as are the effects on the nature of decision-making.

Caring, compassion, and kindness aren’t just limited to internal relationships; they also extend to interactions with customers and clients. You’ll likely know how it feels when a company you are dealing with treats you with care and kindness. You feel heard and seen. In working through an issue, you are more likely to walk away more satisfied and loyal to the company.

Leaders play a crucial role in this arena.

Get good at it
Like all skills, you can learn, develop and elevate these skills.

As I’ve written about before (Nice guys don’t finish last) you can be kind and still succeed.

In this HBR article, the authors recount the findings of a 14-year study from the University of California, which found that people who were selfish, aggressive and manipulative were less likely to be promoted to positions of power; in contrast, those who were generous and agreeable were more likely to be promoted to a place of authority.

So, where do you start?

Like all good leadership cultivation, it starts with self-awareness. To care, be compassionate, and show kindness to others, you must understand your emotions, values, and attitudes. You must be open to critically assessing how you show up and how people experience your leadership.

Once you are clear on your current state, you can decide what type of leader you want to be and build the development program to support your leadership evolution.

As part of this, consider the daily practices you can institute to help you. Not surprisingly, self-care is at the top of the list. Caring for others is hard if you don’t care for yourself and have the emotional bandwidth. You may want to start doing a daily loving-kindness meditation like this one shared by the Greater Good Science Centre.

It’s a cliché to say that people are at the heart of every organisation, and yet, it’s true. If we look into the future working world, the crucial distinguishing feature and value humans offer at work is our humanity and ability to care and connect.

In his book, The Daily Stoic: 365 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance and the Art of Living, Author Ryan Holiday challenges readers to think about what they are getting better at. He writes:

Our will shouldn’t be directed at becoming the person who is in perfect shape or who can speak multiple languages but who doesn’t have a second for other people. What’s the point of winning at sports but losing in the effort to be a good husband, wife, father, mother, son or daughter? Let’s not confuse getting better at stuff with being a better person. One is a much bigger priority than the other“.

That sentiment is equally applicable in the working world.

Two questions to ponder this week. Firstly, if you are confusing likeability with being a kind, caring and compassionate leader, what are you stepping over? Secondly, for you to be the leader you want to be, what do you need to get better at?

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