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How Likeable Are You?

Jul 23, 2021

One of the age-old questions for leaders:  Is it more important to be liked or feared?

Research has shown that, all things being equal, people buy from people they know, like and trust.  Sometimes, this is true even when things aren't equal; for example, even when there are cost differentials, we still prefer to deal with people we like.. 

People also follow leaders they know, like, and trust.  They consistently ask the questions, "do I trust you?" and "do I feel you care about me?"  And often, decisions about these things are made in a split second, in a process known as "thin-slicing."

Malcolm Gladwell coined this phrase in his best-selling book Blink, in which he explored the power of thinking without thinking, looking at the process that differentiates great decisions made in the moment from some truly bad decisions. Gladwell identified thin-slicing as the art of filtering the very few factors that matter from the overwhelming number of variables in the mix.  His findings are based on cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology.  To increase your understanding, I recommend the book - it's fascinating.

An article by Amy Cuddy, a renowned professor at Harvard Business School, together with the authors of Compelling People:  The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential, explored the relative importance of strength vs. warmth when it comes to influence.

While they agree that at times, demonstrating strength in the form of confidence and competence is more important, they also recognized that this could tend to alienate others, including team members and colleagues.  By first focusing on displaying warmth, and then demonstrating competence, leaders can connect more quickly with others and increase their influence more easily.

Warmth is important because people seek a sense of belonging and inclusion.  It is one of our primary human needs.  Being excluded is painful to us.  I can’t help thinking about the detrimental impact of Social Media on people today who feel left out when they read about friends getting together without them.

Even at work, we are social beings who want to be part of a group, and we are quick to establish an “us vs. them” mentality within our siloes.  And finally, we all have a compelling need to be seen, heard and understood.  This basic wisdom propelled the success of The Oprah Winfrey Show for many years.  For leaders, it is critical to cultivate empathy for others and be able to see things from their perspective.  In the work I do with leadership development, this is often identified as the most critical skill for a leader to develop.

The good news, of course, is that warmth and likeability and empathy are all things that can be learned and strengthened.  In The Likeability Factor, consultant and researcher Tim Sanders teaches us how to elevate likeability-- and success-- by enhancing four critical elements of our personality: 

  • Friendliness: your ability to communicate liking and openness to others
  • Relevance: your capacity to connect with others’ interests, wants, and needs
  • Empathy: your ability to recognize, acknowledge, and experience other people’s feelings
  • Realness: the integrity that stands behind your likeability and guarantees its authenticity

And Cuddy and her co-authors also offer up some great advice on how to project both warmth and strength.  It's largely a question of finding the right balance and the right level because authenticity rules here.  You can't fake warmth and get away with it over the long run. 

The best simple advice is to Smile - and mean it.    And to listen - and validate what people are saying and feeling.  If this sounds too soft and squishy, consider the body of research that indicates that people will choose to work with someone who is likeable and incompetent over someone who is competent and unlikeable. (Harvard Business Review 2005).

For leaders, your ability to connect with others through a combination of warmth and likeability, along with strength and competence, matters.  So, the question becomes, what are you doing to increase your level of genuine warmth for others and your empathy?  What is your likeability factor?  Do you really know how you are perceived in your organization by your team members or direct reports, as well as your colleagues and peers?

All self-improvement begins with self-awareness.  And if you are not sure where you stand in the eyes of others, it's time to find that out.  If you need help with this, I invite you to reach out to me to discuss options for increasing your level of self-awareness.

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