How To Be a More Likable Leader

March 16, 2023

Likable Leader

Does being a likable leader make much of a difference? Organizations have put forth large investments into employee well-being programs over the past few years that include coaching, education, and other incentives. According to Josh Bersin’s 2023 HR Predictions Report, “organizations will need to move beyond employee experience and focus on people sustainability.” What can we do to mitigate burnout, create energy, promote psychological safety, and improve DEI in organizations? At Zenger Folkman, our focus is on leaders. What can LEADERS do to improve people sustainability? What kind of relationships do they need to form?

Are Unlikable Leaders Effective?

Many people assume that it’s possible for a person to be an effective leader without being likable. That is technically true, but you may not like the odds. In a study of 51,836 leaders, we found just 27 who were rated at the bottom quartile in terms of likability but in the top quartile in terms of overall leadership effectiveness—that’s approximately one out of 2,000.

Our likability index, based on data collected from 360 assessments, measures a broad set of behaviors that go far beyond smiling and having a pleasant personality.

Likability sounds like an immutable trait — something people either have or don’t. But our experience in working with thousands of leaders suggests otherwise. Our 360 data from these 50,000+ leaders highlighted seven key steps executives can take to substantially increase their likability.

How to Improve Your Likability

  • Increase positive emotional connections with othersJust like the flu or a cold, emotions are contagious. If a leader is angry or frustrated, those feelings will spread to others. Conversely, if a leader is positive and optimistic, those emotions also spread. Be aware of your emotional state and work to spread positive emotions.
  • Display rock-solid integrityDo others trust you to keep your commitments and promises? Are others confident that you will be fair and do the right thing? We like leaders we trust; we dislike those we distrust.
  • Cooperate with others. Some leaders believe that they are in competition with others in the organization, but the purpose of an organization is to unite employees to work together for a common purpose.
  • Be a coach, mentor, and teacher. Think about someone who has helped you develop or learn a new skill. How do you feel about that person? Most people have fond and positive memories of coaches and mentors. Helping others develop is a gift that is never forgotten.
  • Be an inspiration. Think about it—most leaders know very well how to drive for results. They demand excellence. They insist that employees achieve stretch targets. In other words, they push. And the best bosses do this as well. But that’s not all they do. The most successful leaders are also effective at pulling. They roll up their sleeves when necessary and pitch in with the team. They communicate powerfully. Inspiring leaders, as you might expect, are more likable leaders.
  • Be visionary and future-focused. When employees do not clearly understand where they’re headed and how they’ll get there, they become frustrated and dissatisfied, feeling like passengers with no control and few options except complaining. Sharing a vision of the future and helping team members understand how to get there inspires confidence: It’s hard to like a leader who’s lost in the wilderness.
  • Ask for feedback and make an effort to change. Our 360 data show clearly that most people rate themselves as a more likable leader than their bosses, peers, and direct reports do. How can you bridge that gap? As the graph below demonstrates, there’s a strong correlation between a leader’s likability and the extent to which they   ask for and respond to feedback from others. Feedback from others helps leaders to understand the impact (positive or negative) that they have on others.

Why Leaders Need to Ask for Advice

Listen to this research on The 90th Percentile: An Unconventional Leadership Podcast, Episode 65: I’m the Boss—Why Should I Care if You Like Me? 

Follow Through and Prioritize Becoming a Likable Leader

You can be a more likable leader. Identify two actions from the list above that would most help you in your current situation. A great way to start would be to ask for feedback and ask team members to identify which activities would have the most value to them. Make a plan, identify some specific steps you will take to improve, and then stick to it. Ask others for feedback on your progress.

Oh, and by the way, if you are a man, this is even more important for you to consider because, in all probability, you are less liked than your female counterparts, and that’s hindering your effectiveness as a leader.

Leadership is linked to the culture of every organization. They set the standards and expectations for how the work is done. Leaders set the tone for how people interact, dress, and behave. They impress on others the values and vision of the organization. If you’re a leader, you should care if people like you, and you should be concerned if the people around you don’t believe that you like them. People sustainability starts with individuals who care about the well-being of every member of their team.

-Jack Zenger