Why It's Better To Be Liked Than To Be Respected

The MPW Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: How important is likability as a leader? is written by Kristin Kaufman, founder and president of Alignment Inc.


Still of Lacey Chabert, Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried in Mean Girls. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

During a heated television appearance in 2010, then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel gave some stern advice to U.S. Congressman Eric Massa: “If all people see is anger, they’ll see anger. Do you ever remember a person not likeable winning? Be likeable.”

His comments intrigued me, as one question that business leaders often ask is: would you rather be respected or liked? I never really ‘got’ that question because those two traits are not mutually exclusive.

But while being both respected and liked are possible, being liked is more important. In politics, it is clear that likability is a critical success factor. People vote for people they like. Trust, smarts, capability, similar views, experience, proven track record, and leadership are needed. Yet, the likability factor has been proven time and time again as being a ticket to entry.

After all, in some ways, life is a series of popularity contests. The choices other people make about us often determine our success. And decades of research prove that people choose who they like. They vote for them, they buy from them, they marry them, and they spend precious time with them.

So when we are attempting to build rapport, lead teams, build trust, and build overall likability, consider these few simple tips:

Be real. No one likes a phony. Let your vulnerabilities show. People relate to other people. Also, be genuinely interested in others. Not at the veneer level – take a deep, thoughtful interest in them, their thoughts, dreams, ideas, and challenges. This is authentic, real, and frankly, often a rarity in the fast-paced world of business.

Be friendly. This sounds so simple, yet many have trouble with this for many reasons: insecurities, fears, defense mechanisms, lack of trust, etc. So, just go for it. Treat others openly and see the best in them. Take the plunge and be nice. Smile sincerely and warmly – that is the magic facial expression.

Be respectful of others. Be well-intentioned, generous and sincere with your compliments. Be empathetic to other’s feelings, situations and challenges. Most of the time, a person is thinking about their situation – not ours. So when we show the capacity to think of them first – it is appreciated.

Stay centered and quietly confident. It takes such a load off when the person we are with is not needy – it puts us at ease, doesn’t it? Don’t we love being around folks who are comfortable in their own skins? And quiet confidence is just plain attractive.

So, what is possible when we take these steps? Well, we certainly will see and bring out the best in others. And I have learned that when that happens, miracles happen. First, the best will come out in us, too! Sales will go up. Teamwork improves. Change is smoother and well-supported by others. The energy is contagious. We will go the extra mile for our leaders and vice-versa. We want him or her to succeed because we like him or her so much, and vice-versa.

So, the next time someone says being liked doesn’t matter so long as you’re respected, I suggest they ask one simple question: if there is someone else that can do the job AND be well-liked, for whom would we want to work for and serve?

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