“I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” Sally Field loves to be liked, made clear by this exclamation for winning an Oscar in 1985 for her role in Places in the Heart. Social psychologists claim that most of us derive great emotional pleasure from being accepted and liked. This pleasure is profound to the degree that our brains don’t substantially differentiate emotional from physical pleasure.
As evidence, in a study from the University of California (“Shared neural mechanism underlying social warmth and physical warmth,” Inagaki, T.K. and Eisenberger, N.I.), subjects were put into MRI scanners to see the difference in brain pleasure center activation when they were read letters from other people expressing their deep affection for the participant (emotional pleasure), versus the response when doing something physically nurturing, like holding a warm pack or ball. Brain tissue was activated similarly under both conditions, meaning that being loved and validated are as pleasurable as a warm hug.
In his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, University of California psychology professor Matthew Lieberman suggests that the warm pack and ball are physical surrogates for eating your favorite ice cream, which I personally relate to better. (I worked in sales for Häagen Dazs after graduating with my undergraduate degree in biochemistry—made perfect sense to me). We don’t see many storefronts offering up warm bags and balls.
So, if we are wired to feel pleasure when being loved or liked, why do leaders sometimes behave in unlikable ways? Have they over-subscribed to the notion that you can’t be liked by everyone, so they don’t bother trying? Did we learn in business school that it’s not important to be liked, or even, it’s better if you’re not liked (feared)? Did we, as leaders, forget how we felt about our own bosses when we didn’t like them?
I’m not certain who started the whole “you can’t be liked by everyone” thing, but I’m wondering if it was a guy named Atilla back in the fifth century. (Yes, I checked Wikipedia for this famous Hun’s bio, lest you accuse me of making everything up. And, by the way, he wasn’t credited for propagating dysfunctional paradigms—that I did make up.) Keeping a cool distance from employees, not worrying about being liked was advice that had been passed to me by leadership peers, advice that I thankfully did not heed.
In actuality, you probably CAN’T be liked by everyone. I remember losing a sale back in the day, and getting feedback afterward from a confidant at the account. It turns out that the primary decision-maker didn’t like me, apparently because I was occasionally funny. It still stings to this day, decades later, not only because she didn’t like me, but because she didn’t think I was ALWAYS funny.
I submit that, while there’s value in being liked, there’s even more value in TRYING to be liked. The effort is an exercise in self-awareness which is so vital for building the trusting relationships with employees that precede strong engagement. As I always assert, relationships within the context of work are no different than those in the rest of our lives. They’re built on trust that results from a warm, compassionate, vulnerable leadership style; as opposed to the fear mongering that comes with command-and-control, strength and power leadership stances.
Trying to be likable means that you’re focusing on the needs and desires of others and you’re taking into consideration how you might be coming off to them. It’s an attempt to see yourself as objectively as possible, through someone else’s eyes, and acting in ways that they like, trust, respect, admire and maybe even enjoy. It’s a way of saying, albeit subtly, “I care enough about you to make you feel comfortable, safe and happy.”
It turns out that this likability objective of The Institute is stuff I’m pulling from my own beliefs and learnings. I visited the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health website PubMed for any research, entered “leadership and likability” and got “Sensory and nutritional attributes of pomegranate juices extracted from separated arils and pressed whole fruits.” Apparently there’s opportunity for research in this area.
How does one intentionally strive to be likable? Starting with a good shower, where a little soap wouldn’t kill you, here are some other ways to mindfully improve your good standing (relationship) with others:
If you want to know what others like, the best way is to ASK THEM. Be genuinely interested in others, finding out what makes them tick, what their interests are and what you might do for them.
Watch body language
SMILE, make eye contact and manage personal space. You’ve probably encountered a “close talker” at some point in your life, where you can hardly concentrate on the words coming from them due to their nose nearly smacking you in the forehead. Unless you have really short arms, arm’s distance is a pretty good rule.
Call people by name
Or better yet, call them by their nickname. It is endearing when people hear their own names.
Be vulnerable, own up to mistakes
Fallibility is the human condition and admitting your mistakes makes people feel safer when they make their own. If innovation is part of the job description and business’s mission, stretching the status quo is important and people ought not fear making a mistake.
People love to be heard and there’s nothing better than a good ear.
Put away distractions
In other words, THE CELL PHONE! People love it when their audience is present, and it’s impossible to be there when engaged with your phone. It’s such an addictive attraction and people will really appreciate it when you prioritize them over the phone.
So, what if you aren’t liked? Is it the end of the world? In short, no.
A fear of not being liked can take too much control over your life. Sometimes decisions need to be made which can be inherently polarizing, and not everyone will agree or like them (or you). Not making the occasional difficult decision may be detrimental to the organization, and sometimes you will just be the bad guy. In a best-case scenario, you’ve had the chance to build trust with the organization, and these occasional unlikable moments will be forgiven.
Ultimately we’re striving for balance, where trusting and meaningful relationships lead to greater retention, innovation, productivity and customer experience. TRYING to be liked will go a long way toward building those relationships and, you never know, you could actually be that well-loved, EFFECTIVE leader who we’ve wondered is even possible.
Provocateur and Leadership Doctor