Stop Trying to Seem Likeable

Oct 17, 2018

Every field of study has its own running debates. How exactly did the dinosaurs go extinct? Do we live in a single universe or a multiverse? How can a three-dimensional figure have a finite volume and an infinite surface area? Did someone put the chocolate in the peanut butter or the peanut butter on the chocolate?

In organizational behavior, one of the running debates has to do with competence and sociability. It seems obvious that we’d prefer leaders who have lots of both, but those people appear to be in short supply. If you have to pick one, is it better to be a “competent jerk” or a “loveable fool”? There’s been a lot said on both sides of this issue. Most of us have seen articles and the various accompanying 2x2 matrices.

The recent prevailing wisdom has largely come down on the side of “warmth” and “likeability”. However, Stanford’s Jeff Pfeffer and Darden’s Peter Belmi came out with a new take this year. Their paper provides experimental evidence that people actually prefer “competent jerks” when their own economic rewards depend on the performance of that person. On the one hand, this might seem like a blinding flash of the obvious: people like pleasant coworkers, but they like getting paid even more.

On the other hand, it presents an interesting problem. Most large organizations are getting more interdependent – not less. Things like cross-functional collaboration, customer centricity, and organizational transformation all require high degrees of interdependence. That shows up in rewards, but also in everyday interactions. According to Pfeffer and Belmi’s research, that means we’ll tend to select precisely the kinds of leaders whose social skills are less than ideally suited to the work.

What strikes me even more is the emphasis in this strain of research on “impression management”. Scholars in the field have a lot of recommendations on how leaders should present themselves and how they should try to seem to be. Managing all those perceptions is pretty tough work. After all, it’s hard to seem competent, if you aren’t. And it’s hard to seem warm if you’re cold.

In my experience, advice about how to manage the perceptions of others is tough to implement. Most of us just aren’t that good at mind reading and acting. Rather than give advice on how to seem, I’d prefer to give people advice on what to do.

In that spirit, here’s a different kind of matrix – not based on traits or perception, but based on actions:

At the end of the day, leadership is always about getting important work done through other people. Think about it: If you do all the work yourself, it’s not really leadership – it’s just working. And if the work isn’t important, what are we even talking about? Real leaders engage people and the real issues.

To get important work done, organizations need to take on their real problems and opportunities. It’s far too easy to occupy ourselves with work that makes us look busy and competent, but ultimately doesn’t matter much. Real leaders recognize and address the critical problems and opportunities that lie on the path to progress. That’s what we call engaging the real issues.

Leading isn’t a solitary activity. It’s about mobilizing others. Real leaders connect with other people in ways that are meaningful to them. They help others recognize the real issues. They involve them in exploring and addressing important problems and opportunities. That’s what we call engaging people.

Some people are good at engaging the real issues, but engaging people … not so much. These folks often see problems and opportunities that others don’t, but they try to go it alone. Sometimes their results can be impressive, but they are always narrow. These lone wolves tend to stick their own territory. Because they don’t involve others, they often miss larger issues at play. Their successes rarely spread to the rest of the organization, because they don’t have the relationships to bring others along.

If you are one of these people, the answer isn’t trying harder to “seem” likeable or warm. The answer is to direct your attention to engaging people in the important work. Reach out to make connections. Involve other people in addressing the real issues. Offer your expertise to help them address the problems and opportunities they face.

Other folks have a talent for engaging people, but they shy away from the real issues. These are the office politicians. They have strong networks and they’re always having lunch with somebody. However, they tend to be reactive and cautious. Like real politicians, they are constantly testing the waters and trying to be on the “right” side of consensus. They can get positive things done, but those are generally small wins. Office politicians don’t drive major change.

If you fall on this side of the spectrum, don’t waste your time wondering if you should “power pose” or remove the words “I think” from your vocabulary. Instead, be honest with yourself about the real problems and opportunities you should be taking on. Then leverage your strong relationships to do it.

I was recently talking with a manager who changed how he engaged with his own employees. He shared that he had been too worried in the past about seeming “nice”. At times, that meant not holding people accountable. As he began to push harder on the real important issues, he found his relationships actually improved.

So, my advice is stop trying to seem likeable. While you’re at it stop trying to seem competent too. Focus on doing the things that actually engage people and the real issues. You just might find they like you for it and they respect you for it too.