How to Balance Likability and Respect

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The best leaders are both well liked and highly respected. But balancing those two attributes can be difficult.

That’s because likability and respect tend to fall on opposite sides of a spectrum. In other words, people either act with the intention to be well-liked, or they act with the intention to command respect.

Each attribute is a motivator. Of course, everyone wants to be both, but most people value one attribute more highly than the other and will behave accordingly.

Here’s what that looks like for leaders.

The Leaders Who Want to Be Liked

Almost everyone inherently wants to be liked. That makes total sense.

For most of human history, acceptance (being liked) has been equated with the reception of protection and security from groups. It’s a basic pack-animal mentality: if you’re liked, you’re safe.

Today, while being liked doesn’t correlate quite as directly with your chances of survival, there’s still reality to the fact that it tends to be beneficial. Plus, our egos prefer it.

So, everyone wants to be liked – but some people lean more heavily toward this end of the spectrum. Here’s what these people look like as leaders:

They’re easy to work for. People who over-index this way will be easy on others’ feelings and won’t input too much pressure onto results. “Sure, that report can be delayed another week,” or “I know you didn’t hit your quota this quarter, but don’t worry. We’ll figure something out.”

This can make their reports’ lives easy, but it can also facilitate a culture of “skating,” where the low bar they’ve set encourages minimum effort and drives mediocre results.

They shy away from conflict. Conflict brings discomfort and the threat of being unpopular, so people who want to be liked tend to avoid it as much as they can. This means that they can struggle to give candid feedback and have a hard time giving direct reports “air cover” when representing their team to higher-ups.

The Leaders Who Want to Be Respected

On the other side of the continuum are the people who value respect most highly.

Again, this is a natural and innate human desire. Respect tends to connote power, which is a useful survival tool. And again, being respected is a nice ego boost.

Here’s what the people who lean more heavily toward this end of the spectrum look like:

They get results. People who crave respect know they’ll get it if they get results, so they push hard to make things happen. They might set barely-attainable goals and hold their teams to extremely high levels of performance and effort. 

This can drive growth, but if it’s not balanced by a mindfulness for others, it’ll eventually wear down the team they’re responsible for. By that time, though, they may have been promoted.

They can be jerks. People who strive for respect can’t stand to be thought of as ineffective and they shiver to imagine being perceived as pushovers. Consequently, they’ll rush into conflict against anything they view as a challenge to their authority or their results, often disregarding others’ feelings in the process. 

How to Find the Balance

Here’s the truth: nobody’s perfect and everyone has ego issues. So, almost everyone pursues either respect or likability in ways that are unhealthy.

But the best leaders are adept at balancing these two attributes. If leaders aren’t respected, nobody will follow them. If they aren’t liked, nobody will want to.

Leaders must be both.

And while it’s difficult to change your natural inclination toward either side, you can be intentional about behaving in a way that capitalizes on your strengths and minimizes your weaknesses. 

Leaders who want to be liked should focus on clearly communicating expectations upfront.

This will make conflict less intimidating down the road, because the lines will have already been set in advance (and it will balance against the desire to sugarcoat).

They should also keep in mind that activities they may perceive as “unlikable” (giving candid feedback or standing ground on needed conflict) are sometimes necessary for the benefit of others. To avoid saying something necessary because it’s uncomfortable is unkind.

Leaders who want to be respected should focus on building trust and relationships first.

There’s nothing wrong with desiring to be respected, but keep in mind that long-term results are best achieved by teams that feel valued by their leaders, not by teams that fear them.

It’s best to start relationships by demonstrating kindness and building trust before driving an intense agenda. When there’s a firm relational foundation in place, results come much more easily.

Want help walking the balance?

With intentional work and practice, it’s possible to minimize unhealthy behaviors in the pursuit of either likability or respect and grow to actively earn both. But first, you have to grow in the understanding of both yourself and your context.

We’re here to help. At Emily Bermes + Associates, we’ve worked with over one thousand executives to build success in-role – and this always means balancing both ends of the spectrum. 

If you’re ready for a new approach to executive coaching, let’s talk.

Emily Bermes