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The Psychology of How to Be Likable as a Leader

It's probably not what you expect.

Key points

  • The extent to which likability drives behavior at work (relative to competency) is dramatically underestimated.
  • Likability (or, "affiliation") has a powerful influence over people’s disposition towards a leader and what they are asked to do.
  • Understanding the psychology behind what makes someone liked can help one increase likability without having to be everyone’s best friend.

Likability is a tricky concept as a leader. While we recognize that being likable could be important, in general we aim to be competent. For some personality types, being likable might even seem to be a distraction or complication in the high-pressure mission to get things done.

However, it pays to remember that the more senior your position, the more your achievements depend on the actions of other people. Those actions and efforts can vary enormously depending on the effect you have on others. It also helps to know that we dramatically underestimate the extent to which a person’s likability drives our behavior in the workplace, relative to his or her competency [1].

How should a leader become more likeable? Should you buy donuts, tell jokes, or ask people about their weekends? The wonderful thing about psychology (and behavioral science in general) is that it allows us to identify what actually affects people’s behavior, instead of resorting to guesswork. To identify how you, as a leader, can leverage the power of likability in a manner that you find personally comfortable, we must first understand the factors that lead us to categorize people as likable or not.

Prostock-Studio/iStock
Source: Prostock-Studio/iStock

How our brains determine who we like and favor

Classifying others as like us—or not like us—is a reflexive behavior. At a deep, subconscious level, we are continually processing information about the people around us. One of the key data points we evaluate is whether another person is somehow like us (and therefore part of our “in-group”) or instead not like us, and thus a member of the “out-group." Defining people in this way was essential to our past survival because proximity to “in-group” members generally meant safety, whereas proximity to “out-group” carried the threat of danger. As a result, we categorize those around us to determine who we belong with versus who we do not.

The people whom you classify subconsciously as being “like you” do not have to be people you actively and consciously like. A more practical term for application in the workplace may be “affiliation” rather than “liking," meaning that your brain has identified another person as being associated with you, or part of your group, and thus distinguished from those who are not. Affiliation can be formed by genuine likability, but it can also occur based on any criterion that causes people to perceive themselves as similar.

The shocking extent to which this affects our behavior

Once we perceive certain people as being affiliated with us, we favor them in a multitude of ways [2]. We interpret their behavior more favorably [3], are more likely to describe them positively [4], rate their task performance higher [5], are more likely to consider their advice [6], are more likely to want to cooperate with them [7], and more likely to help them and complete voluntary tasks they ask us to do [8].

Even seemingly meaningless criteria that cause us to separate those like us from others can be enough to measurably impact our behavior. Small but nonetheless significant effect sizes show that people with the same names or initials are 11% more likely to match on a dating app [9] and 9% more likely to get married [10] compared to those with differing initials.

How a leader can be likable—without acting like everyone’s best friend

You might believe that your people see you and your direct reports as members of a team, but that is unlikely to be an active awareness for them most of the time. This is because perceived affiliation varies by context. For example, it could be true in a context where your team is defined in opposition to other teams (e.g., the company’s interdepartmental volleyball match), but when employees work individually or in smaller units, the manager will often be perceived as “out-group."

This means you can likely improve your positive influence on your team by taking active steps to create more affiliation. The stronger the sense of affiliation you generate in those you lead, the more you will beneficially influence their behavior towards you and the things you ask them to do.

There are several research-backed factors that you can apply at work to create a sense of affiliation to you. Significant effects occur when:

  1. People hear that you like them, have praised them, or have complimented their capability. They can hear this directly from you, or from others, but don’t assume that this happens de facto. Don’t wait until a performance review or feedback session. Make sure that the people who work for you know you have good things to say about them. One of the most powerful influences over our sense of affiliation is the belief that someone else has liked or praised us first.
  2. People believe that you are co-committed to their goals. There are few actions that more strongly imply “I am on your team” than demonstrating a commitment to another person’s goals. You may be used to talking about the department’s goals or the company’s goals—but instead, think in terms of your people’s goals. The simple act of acknowledging that you are aware a colleague is seeking a specific opportunity—and that you are looking out for it on his or her behalf—can be highly effective. Taking the time to ask your team members what each is hoping to achieve this year is enough to indicate some commitment to them. For large groups of people, this could even be done as a group exercise during a team meeting.
  3. People feel that you have important similarities in common with them. This does not have to involve exposing too much of your personal life or being overly familiar. Simply that demonstrating one or two meaningful similarities can enable others to identify with you. The similarities you choose to highlight should be important to both parties, such as a demonstrated commitment to a charitable cause. They should also be factors that both parties are comfortable acknowledging.

Likability and affiliation have a powerful influence over people’s disposition towards you and what you ask them to do. A small investment of time on a regular basis can go a long way to increase the positive impact you have on others—and hence your leadership effectiveness.

References

See Working with Influence: Nine Principles of Persuasion to Accelerate Your Career

[1] Casciaro T., & Sousa Lobo, M. (2008). When competence is irrelevant: The role of interpersonal affect in task-related ties. Administrative Science Quarterly, 53(4), 655-684.

[2] Tajfel H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1(2), 149-178.

[3] Chatman, C. M., & von Hippel, W. (2001). Attributional mediation of in-group bias. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 37(3), 267–272.

[4] Castelli, L., Tomelleri, S., & Zogmaister, C. (2008). Implicit ingroup metafavoritism: Subtle preference for ingroup members displaying ingroup bias. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(6), 807–818.

[5] Gordon R. (1996). Impact of ingratiation on judgments and evaluations: A meta-analytic investigation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(1), 54-70.

[6] Jayanti, R. K., & Whipple, T. W. (2008). Like Me … Like Me Not: The Role of Physician Likability on Service Evaluations. Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 16(1), 79-86.

[7] Pulles N., & Hartman, P. (2017). Likeability and its effect on outcomes of interpersonal interaction. Industrial Marketing Management, 66, 56-63.

[8] Garner R. (2005). What's in a name? Persuasion perhaps. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 15(2), 108-116.

[9] Levy, J., Markell, D., & Cerf, M. (2019). Polar similars: Using massive mobile dating data to predict synchronization and similarity in dating preferences. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02010

10] Jones, J. T., Pelham, B. W., Carvallo, M., and Mirenberg, M. C. (2004). How do I love thee? Let me count the Js: implicit egotism and interpersonal attraction. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 87, 665–683.

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