Avoiding being a ‘people pleaser’ is often critical to becoming an effective manager, writes Louise Rodgers

Louise Rodgers crop 2

Louise Rodgers

Wanting to be liked, and taking actions we think will make us more likeable, can help us to connect with people in our life. In the workplace it also helps to build trust. This can lead to better collaboration, greater influence, and increased opportunities.

But new managers often struggle to balance this with the need to have authority with the people who work for them. This is particularly true if the person has recently been promoted and is now managing people who were previously their peers. They can fall into the trap of ‘people-pleasing’, unwilling or unable to exert their authority for fear that it may compromise their likeability.

This has come up in a few coaching sessions recently. “I find myself reluctant to give honest feedback,” said a new manager. “So much so that I often don’t tell people their work is not up to scratch, and just do it again myself, after hours.”

Clearly this is not sustainable. What’s more, it isn’t fair on anybody – neither the person being managed, who is mistakenly thinking that their work is being well received, and losing an opportunity to learn, or the manager who is having to work extra hours to get things done.

It is natural to want to be liked. You’re not alone in feeling uncomfortable if you think people don’t like you, but if you become fixated on getting people’s approval at the expense of making your own choices, it can interfere with how you feel about work.

It is more important to be respected and credible, the argument goes, and when it comes to making tough decisions, being liked is not a high priority

Developing the self-awareness to know when the desire to be liked has slipped over into a need to be liked requires reflection. It can be due to several reasons which may be worth exploring with a coach, or therapist. When do you think this needing to be liked started? Can you remember a time when it wasn’t so important to you? What would happen if you let go of it? What would you do differently?

For every article you can find that talks about likeability as a leadership quality, there are just as many that make the opposite point; that leadership isn’t a popularity contest. It is more important to be respected and credible, the argument goes, and when it comes to making tough decisions, being liked is not a high priority.

It can also disproportionately affect women, who, in my experience are more likely to label themselves ‘people-pleasers’. Studies have demonstrated that women are often perceived as either likeable OR as having leadership material, but often struggle to be seen as both. And if they do show some assertiveness, for example by giving honest and fair feedback when someone’s work is below what is expected, they may be seen as competent, but perhaps not quite so likeable.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her book We Should All Be Feminists, talks about what she calls ‘pivotal moments’; moments when you need to turn away from likeability to preserve the quality of your work or vision. “If you start thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that’s going to ruin your story, so forget about likability” she writes.

However, letting go of your need to be liked doesn’t stop you from being kind, fair and honest. Not for the first time I find myself thinking of Brene Brown. In her book Dare To Lead, she urges that braver and more courageous workplace cultures emerge when people are not avoiding tough conversations and are giving honest, productive feedback. Her mantra is “Clarity is kind. Unclear is unkind”.

This is worth remembering next time you accept work that is unacceptable, and then put in a couple of extra hours to do it yourself.