I still remember the moment that ultimately decided my future with the company where I had worked for 17 years. A clerical error on performance evaluations led to an employee not receiving a merit raise as I had intended (and had been agreed to during a meeting where all increases were discussed and voted upon).

I explained the mistake to my boss and the HR manager. They didn’t care, saying what was done was done. “Maybe he will earn one next year,” they said.

So I had two choices.

One path led to safety. All I had to do was back off and later tell the employee he wouldn’t get a merit raise after all. Or I could stick to what I knew was right—and what the people who reported to me knew was right. 

I decided to hold my ground, mostly because it was the right thing to do. But if I’m honest, I also did it because I knew it would make a number of employees think well of me.

Long story short? I got fired, at least in part, because I wanted to be liked.

And I’m okay with that.

But there’s a definite downside to making decisions based on how the people who work for you may feel about you: Researchers at the University of Michigan found that leaders who focus more on prestige (how they’re perceived) instead of dominance (a seemingly harsh word that can also simply mean that you lead by authority) tend to prioritize popularity over performance.

Which means they often make poor decisions—if they think the people they lead will approve of those decisions.

Private vs. public

In one experiment, participants were given a hypothetical leadership situation and told to choose between an option that would be most likely to lead to success or an option that best fit what the team would prefer to do. 

If participants were able to make the decision in private, they almost always chose the performance-based option. They made the right business decision.

But when participants had to make the decision in public, many chose the option the team wanted. Objectively, they knew the best option, but their desire to be liked outweighed their desire to do what was right for the business.

I’ve done that. I’ve gone into meetings fully committed to a certain decision… but then backed off in the face of group disapproval. I didn’t change my mind because people offered better data, better logic, or better insights. I changed my mind because my need to be liked was more important, at least in the moment, than what I knew was the best thing to do.

This is often the case for “prestige-oriented” leaders: Most made decisions that catered to their team’s preferences even though those decisions negatively affected the group’s success.

So how can you balance needing to be liked with leading an effective team—and building a thriving business?

Here are some simple tips:

1. Never stop at “no.”

If you want to be liked, saying “no” is hard. But it’s often necessary.

So just as you should always focus on performance and not the person, shift the focus away from you and onto the decision itself.  Explain the logic and reasoning. Share data. Share facts and figures. While your employees still may not love the outcome, they’ll at least understand why. (Like Simon Sinek says, everything starts with why.)

Never justify a decision based on authority. If you can’t explain why you made a particular decision… you probably aren’t making the right decision. 

2. Start saying, “I don’t.”

Researchers conducted a simple study in which one group was presented with a simple temptation and told to say, “I can’t [do that].” The other group was told to say, “I don’t [do that].”

Here’s what happened:

  • Participants told to say “I can’t” gave in to the temptation 61 percent of the time.
  • Participants told to say “I don’t” gave in 36 percent of the time.

Yep: Saying “I don’t” made it twice as likely that people stuck to their plan. 

In a second experiment, the researchers found that saying “I can’t” was not only less effective than saying “I don’t,” it was also less effective than saying nothing at all. 

Why? “I can’t” leaves room to negotiate. If you say to an employee, “I’m sorry, but I can’t ignore our policy,” that immediately opens things up for negotiation. Maybe you could this time. Maybe you could under certain circumstances. Maybe… maybe lots of things.

Saying “I don’t” doesn’t allow for negotiation. 

Which is great if you need to say no to an employee. Saying, “I can’t give you a raise before you’ve been here for six months” opens you up to a potential negotiation. “Why can’t you give me a raise prior to the six-month mark? I’m outperforming everyone else. I completed a special project. I filled in for my supervisor when she was off for a month.”

You’ll have to refute those points—which means even if you win, you lose.

Instead, simply say, “We don’t give raises until an employee has been here for 60 days.” 

Then you can talk about what the employee can do to ensure he or she qualifies for a raise when that time comes—which is a much more constructive conversation.

3. Strive to be liked for a different reason.

Making unpopular decisions is never fun. 

Making decisions that lead to terrible outcomes for your employees is even less fun. Ultimately, every employee wants to be respected. To be trusted. To be valued. To grow and develop and build a brighter, more successful future for themselves and their families. 

You can’t provide any of these things if you don’t make the kinds of decisions that help you build a stronger, more successful, and more stable company. 

The best way to show you care about your employees is to make decisions that lead to the best long-term outcomes—for your company and for your employees. 

While they may not agree with some of those decisions in the short-term—and may not “like” you for making some of those decisions—they will someday look back and understand.

Even if some don’t, you will. And you’ll know that you didn’t always do the easy thing, but you always did the right thing. For everyone.

Be friendly, but don’t always try to be friends. Be likable, but don’t always try to be liked. You can be kind without being soft, direct without being obnoxious, demanding without being dictatorial.

And in the process, you’ll serve as a great example for the leaders you’re developing to follow. 

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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