As a leader, is it better to be respected than liked?

Received wisdom suggests that, as a leader, it’s more important to be respected than liked. If I asked you which is more important, what would you say? I’m willing to bet that over 90% of all the leaders I know or have ever worked with would shout, “It’s better to be respected!” It would be a no-brainer.

My experience is that, although we might believe that to be respected is more important, what I see repeatedly, are behaviours driven by a strong desire, even a need, to be liked.

Likeability in Leadership

When people like us, they willingly do their best to support us and not let us down. They are more likely to trust us and feel psychologically safe, which can lead to more creativity, risk-taking, and engagement.

The potential downside is that they may be reluctant to challenge us, stand up to us, or contradict us. They may want to protect us, to the detriment of ourselves, the team, or the task at hand.

In a worst-case scenario, they may feel safe to turn in a mediocre performance knowing they won’t be held to account, take advantage of us by pushing back, and by not taking appropriate ownership and responsibility.

The Challenges of Leadership Likeability

The desire to be liked isn’t a bad thing in itself, but when we are driven by a “need” to be liked, it can have a significant impact on our leadership effectiveness and reduce your team’s performance and productivity.

When we care too much about being liked, we tie ourselves in knots trying to meet the expectations of those around us. This can lead to behaviours you might recognise, such as agreeing with the most forceful person in the room, not delegating through fear of overburdening people, and settling for mediocre performance to avoid confrontation.

Although the people we lead may like us and experience us as warm, supportive, caring, and approachable, they may also be unclear about who we are and what we stand for. This can be experienced as a lack of integrity and authenticity. It will certainly have an impact on our ability to achieve results as our people won’t have a clear vision and direction to align behind and are unlikely to be challenged to stretch themselves and deliver their best.

My Story When It Comes to Respect in Leadership

Pondering these topics today I was reminded of my own Royal Naval career. I joined as a rating and was expected to salute all commissioned officers as a sign of respect, whether we respected the individuals or not.

The saying in the services, to help those of us that found this strange or awkward, was “You are respecting the rank, not the person”. Hmm… as I think about that, it still brings up all kinds of conflicting arguments for me.

I worked my way up through the ranks and became a commissioned officer myself so now the boot was on the other foot and I felt even more uncomfortable.

Although I was in a branch of the Navy that didn’t usually wear uniform or overtly use our ranks, as I drove onto Naval bases I would still be saluted by the gate sentries and, much to my lasting embarrassment, this would prompt me to respond in a most un-officer like way, waving and saying something inappropriate like “cheers!” 😊

I do recognise that it stemmed from all kinds of unaddressed beliefs and values around equality, status, being uncomfortable with my authority, etc. Personally, the main reason was likely the feeling that I hadn’t earned respect from people who didn’t know me.

Respect is Earned

We need to earn respect rather than just expect it, due to our role. We also can’t demand respect. People who demand respect to feel secure and worthwhile are more likely to become controlling leaders who can be experienced as driven, ambitious, self-serving, or aggressive.

So, there seems to be a tipping point between preferring to be liked vs needing to be liked, preferring respect vs needing respect. When our strengths in these areas are overused, over-relied upon, or are driven by the need to feel worthwhile and valued, they can and will, if unchecked, limit our effectiveness as an authentic, trustworthy leader who builds strong relationships, stands up for what they believe in, and achieves sustainable results through others.

“Wait” I hear you cry; “likeability and respect aren’t mutually exclusive.” I agree. It is more potent to have a combination of the two. In that case, does one lead to the other? And which one comes first?

The Relationship Between Like and Respect.

In the Harvard Business Review article “Connect, Then Lead,” Amy Cuddy and her co-authors Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger state:

“When we judge others—especially our leaders—we look first at two characteristics: how lovable they are (their warmth, communion, or trustworthiness) and how fearsome they are (their strength, agency, or competence).” 

They are describing the essence of leadership presence as two qualities: warmth and strength, which for me, overlays with being liked and respected.

In Summary

If you want to be an effective leader, you can’t afford to choose between likeability and respect. They are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually reinforcing. You’ll need to show warmth and strength; be lovable and fearsome, be liked and respected.

This isn’t easy. As we have already explored, a person who is warm and caring but avoids standing up for themselves and their beliefs may be well-liked but can lack the credibility and authority to lead and influence others. And a person who uses a command and control style of leadership which demonstrates authority but lacks warmth can produce disengaged team members who lose motivation and become compliant rather than committed and creative.

Cuddy et al, state that although we tend to want to demonstrate our strength, credibility, and competence, for the people around us, it is likeability and warmth that contributes significantly more to others’ evaluations of us—and it’s judged before competence.

They Say:

A growing body of research suggests that the way to influence—and to lead—is, to begin with, warmth. Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas. Even a few small nonverbal signals—a nod, a smile, an open gesture—can show people that you’re pleased to be in their company and attentive to their concerns. Prioritizing warmth helps you connect immediately with those around you, demonstrating that you hear them, understand them, and can be trusted by them.

Penny for Your Thoughts

Here are some questions to ponder:

  • How do you know when you are being driven by a need to feel safe and worthwhile? A need to be loved or liked. A need to feel in control.
  • How do you demonstrate likeability?
  • What do you do consistently to earn and maintain the respect of those around you?

If you’d like to know more about The Universal Model of Leadership, please do get in touch. You can phone me on 07971793558. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts. Please leave a comment below.

Julie Kay

Julie Kay is the founder of JK Leadership Development Ltd. She is a Professional Certified Coach (ICF) and an Ashridge Accredited Executive Coach (Ashridge/Hult International Business School). She works with fast-growing medium-sized businesses often in STEM-related industries. She particularly enjoys supporting technical and operational experts to increase their self-awareness, achieve results, and build strong trusting relationships with those around them.