Why you cannot be a good manager if you want to be liked

Robert McHenry discusses why being respected is preferable to being loved when it comes to being a good boss.

‘They must love working for you’

The owners of small businesses hear this all the time from friends and even strangers. What does it mean? If a small business is to be successful, is it an advantage for the managing director or owner to be loved by their staff? I don’t think it is and one of the hardest things I had to learn when starting my company is that you can’t be a good manager if you want to be liked.

Matey managers are unable to deal with underperformance. They postpone uncomfortable conversations or blunt the message when it is finally delivered. They let problems fester and then get tagged as two-faced when things get to the point where drastic action has to be taken. Talking candidly to someone whose performance is unacceptable is a lot more difficult if deep down you want them to like you.

Wishing to be liked can also make you feel that it is better to integrate with your team rather than to lead it. If a team member then treats the others badly or the team banter gets out of hand, you make it more difficult for yourself to act to nip things in the bud. However, unless you do so, the unremarked behaviour will become the norm and could eventually lead to legal action being taken by someone in the team. Toxic team behaviour usually starts when someone abdicates their responsibility for dealing immediately with what is unacceptable.

So, wanting people to like you risks drawing you too close to direct reports, and thus blurring the boundaries that are necessary to manage effectively. Keeping your distance does not mean that you can’t celebrate birthdays or enjoy a little socialising beyond work (particularly if that is a big part of the culture you want to establish). Just don’t overdo it. Strange as it may seem, everyone in an organisation, no matter how small, benefits from a bit of distance from their boss.

Another way to look at the issue of the popular boss is to ask yourself what people most want from a job besides fair payment. Surveys that try to answer this question never report that people want to work somewhere that is fun or where their boss is lovable. Instead, those surveys consistently suggest that employees want their boss to do six things:

  • listen to them
  • treat them fairly
  • praise them regularly (at least once a week)
  • create a stable and financially secure organisation for them to work in
  • make them feel that their job is important to the organisation
  • employ co-workers who are committed to doing a quality job.

As their boss, your first duty is to create an environment where all these boxes are ticked. Your second duty is to try to be an effective leader. Leadership research suggests that employees prefer to work for someone they respect and admire. This calls for particular discipline if you own the business. I am amazed by the number of people who remark to me when I get a new possession or take my family on holiday, ‘I expect you are putting that through the business’. I learned a long time ago never to be tempted to do this. If you want to retain talented staff who have integrity and respect for your company, never cheat.

You can’t set standards of behaviour if you are not prepared to lead by example. When employees see that you treat your company respectfully as if it were detached from you, they will do the same.

So, if you have to choose between being loved and being respected, choose the latter. If you do, you will attract and retain talented people and your business will surely thrive.

Further reading on ‘nice’ managers

Robert McHenry

Robert McHenry

Dr Robert McHenry is founder and executive chairman of OPP.

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