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Why likable leaders seem more effective

November 12, 2019
Borderless Leadership

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In late 2007, one of us, Charn, found himself in Camp Buehring, Kuwait, preparing to fly a Kiowa Warrior helicopter over the Iraqi border. Kuwait is a stopover where U.S. soldiers finish all required training just prior to deploying into combat. The only treacherous part of Kuwait is the sand — it is deep and very fine so walking is slow and cumbersome. One morning, as he waded through the sand on the way to the airfield, he saw a sign proclaiming, “We Need Leadership, Not Likership.”

He describes his reaction this way:

As a young lieutenant about to lead soldiers in combat for the first time, I knew what I had been taught — leadership was not about being liked, but instead about earning the respect and trust of your followers. But I still thought there was a lot of value in being liked. Striving to achieve this leadership trinity was difficult. Yet, it was abundantly clear, and crystallized by the presence of this sign, that the Army espoused traditional leadership principles, and that did not include “likership.”

Fast forward to 2018, where Charn is in his second career as a professor of organizational behavior and, along with several coauthors, has recently published research in the Journal of Applied Psychology, that led him to question the role of “likership” on the battlefield and in the workplace.

A recent trend in leadership research is to define a new style of leadership (e.g., authentic, ethical) and then demonstrate how following its principles can improve performance. As such, there has been an unending proliferation of leadership styles that have been espoused by researchers and practitioners alike. In fact, within the top six management journals over the past five years, we found 134 articles on leadership promoting at least 29 different leadership theories including “authentic,” “transformational,” “charismatic,” “ethical,” and “servant” leadership. A similar search we did of the past five years of HBR articles resulted in at least 161 articles dedicated to discussing various leadership theories and styles. The forms of leadership espoused in these articles were similar to the ones we found in academic journals, but also included other unique styles, including “artful,” “humble,” and many others.

Yet, despite evidence supporting each form of leadership as predictive of leader and follower performance, we began to recognize a problem. Our experience conducting some of that same leadership research led us to find that if subordinates rated one item on a leadership survey positively, they tended to rate the other items the same. For example, if a subordinate rates her leader as highly ethical (e.g. “My leader defines success not just by results but also the way that they are obtained.”), it is highly likely that she will also rate her leader as transformational (e.g. “My leader helps employees to develop their strengths.”). In essence, if leaders were rated highly in one domain, they would be rated similarly in all others.

This is problematic because each of these leadership styles is considered conceptually distinct. The fact that subordinates tend to rate a single leader similarly across each different style supports the idea that there is a common underlying factor in their ratings. Said another way, subordinates’ ratings appeared to reflect whether or not they liked their leader rather than an evaluation of their leaders’ specific behaviors. As a result, we began to suspect that being liked was the driving force behind leadership ratings.

To test our suspicion, we developed the Leader Affect Questionnaire (LAQ), a short 5-item questionnaire which measures the extent to which an employee likes his or her leader, which you can see below.

People rated their leaders/supervisors on a scale from 1-7: 1) Strongly disagree; 2) Somewhat Disagree; 3) Slightly Disagree; 4) Neutral; 5) Slightly Agree; 6) Somewhat Agree; 7) Strongly Agree. If you are interested in trying this for yourself, rate each statement using this scale, add up your score, and then divide that total by five.

I feel positively about my supervisor.
I like my supervisor.
I like to work with my supervisor.
I value the relationship I have with my supervisor.
I have been happy with my supervisor.

The average “score” of leader liking was about 5.2 across each of our samples. Any score above that suggests that you like your leader more than the average employee.

In our research, we conducted a series of 10 studies, across 3,056 employees, comparing the results of the LAQ with the results of typical leadership questionnaires. Those questionnaires included measures to assess abusive supervision, leader-employee relationship quality, transformational leadership, authentic leadership and ethical leadership.

The results suggested that our hypothesis was correct: subordinates tend to rate leaders based on their personal liking of that leader rather than the leader’s actual behaviors. This is evidenced by the fact that our highly reliable measure of leader liking was positively correlated with other, more traditional leadership measures like authentic leadership, transformational leadership, ethical leadership, and leader-employee relationship quality and was negatively correlated to abusive supervision. This means that if subordinates indicated they liked their leader, then they also rated them as more transformational, authentic, and ethical (and less abusive).

Although the questionnaires used to measure the various leadership styles appear to be very different, they are highly correlated with each other, and all highly correlated with the LAQ. This evidence indicates that the common factor underlying subordinates’ leadership ratings is their liking of their leader. If subordinates like their leaders, they will also say that their leaders are transformational, ethical, authentic, not abusive, and that they have strong leader-employee relations. We also found that the LAQ predicted outcomes such as subordinate satisfaction, organizational citizenship behavior (i.e. going above and beyond one’s job description), well-being and performance about as well as the other measures. Of course, it makes sense that employees will be more satisfied and perform better if their leader is well-liked.

Our research suggests that likership is not the opposite of leadership. Instead, being liked is probably one of key ingredients in the effective leadership formula. The results are very clear – there is no harm in being liked by your subordinates and our research certainly suggests that it is part of being viewed as an effective leader. This means that well-liked leaders can expect subordinates to consider them as authentic, transformational, ethical, and not abusive. Likewise, teams who like their leaders will be happier at work, go above and beyond what is required of them, experience greater well-being, and perform at a higher level.

It is also important to understand that while being liked is undeniably important, it is not the only answer to effective leadership. So, while being liked is an important slice of the pie, it is definitely not the whole pie — our analysis shows that while liking is a significant factor with regard to positive organizational outcomes, there are other factors (e.g., economic climate, resources, and governmental regulations) related to those results that go beyond just whether employees like their leader. All of this means that our work should not be taken as a call for leaders to seek the approval of their subordinates at the expense of their mission or the integrity of their assigned task. Experienced leaders will certainly recognize the Faustian bargain inherent in trying to befriend their subordinates. Nonetheless, for leaders to simply ignore whether their subordinates’ like them will undoubtedly prove detrimental to their success.

The old adage that leadership is not about being liked, but rather only about performance, is not quite correct in the modern organization where employees’ perspectives and voices are being heard to an increasingly greater extent. Leaders need to lead, yes, but they also need to balance out a single-minded focus on outcomes by developing a rapport with and demonstrating a high regard for their people. The bottom line from our analysis is that leaders who are not liked will pay a high price as it is almost certain that their teams will evaluate them negatively on other facets of performance.

By Charn McAllister, Sherry Moss and Mark J. Martinko

Source: HBR

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