This is a question and an issue that has long confused managers and leaders, and our attitudes have begun to shift in line with social change.
If you had asked this question of a manager of the 1950s, they would have thought you slightly mad, and the answer would probably have been an unequivocal ‘no’. Today, it’s a different story.
The death of deference
In previous generations, it may have seemed reasonable to assume that bosses had higher levels of education, experience and skill, and should therefore be deferred to as a matter of course.
A natural deference to authority figures across our society reinforced that response. The absence of employee rights meant that the ‘boss’ held the power over a worker’s financial stability, and could if they wished remove, punish, or disadvantage them with relative impunity.
Of course, not all managers responded in this way, and not all organisations had such an adversarial climate. But many did. Some still do.
In the 21st century, in a nation with a strong culture of free and high-quality education (whatever the media might tell you), and where such a high proportion of the population achieve significant academic qualifications, it quite simply makes no sense to assume ignorance in our workforce.
It is highly likely that, in any organisation, there are some people at even the lowest levels more highly educated than some members of the senior management team.
Similarly, our attitude to authority has changed. Regular revelations of greed, incompetence, mendacity and unethical behaviour in upper management, coupled with media stories about miscarriages of justice and political intrigue, have eroded any natural trust in the ‘powers that be’ that our grandparents’ generation would have considered the norm.
The final nail in this particular coffin is the comparative availability of jobs, and the several financial safety-nets that have taught some members of a generation to see paid employment as an option rather than a necessity.
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The importance of engagement
Considering all of this, it would be a very foolish manager or leader who felt they could blithely exert their authority, reliant on the power of their job title to protect them. In today’s world, employees need to be seen as volunteers, not as conscripts.
Recent research has shown that a ‘bad boss’ was one of the primary reasons for people leaving a job, and this inevitably causes organisations to lose some of their most talented staff. Indeed, it is often the most valuable people who are the first to leave, being the ones with the best employment prospects, and those most likely to be attractive to rival firms.
All of this makes it inevitable that the answer to our question has to be, at least to some degree, ‘yes’. Today, colleagues will be most engaged, most inspired, most committed and most effective with a leader they admire, like, respect and trust, if not someone they can consider a friend. For this to have optimum impact, they should also be working for a cause or vision they believe in.
Of course, there are still many in management positions who will say ‘I’m not here to be popular’, often just before doing something extremely unpleasant, in order to make themselves feel justified or entitled. Often, these people associate being liked with being weak. Many managers, and even whole organisations, still believe that McGregor’s Theory X remains the strong way to manage staff, and that straying nearer to the Y end of the scale will leave them weak, open to abuse, and will allow people ‘off the hook’ to skive and under-perform.
It’s never been clear to me why you’d want your people to feel like fish on a line in the first place, and I believe that taking this attitude to employees is both insulting and cynical.
As a manager or leader, you generally get the response you deserve. Treat your people as skiving wastrels who need to be watched to keep them working, and you deserve to have them withdraw their best efforts.
Given the wide availability of high levels of education and capability, shouldn’t you seek to utilise this to its full potential, and to support everyone to develop? Shouldn’t you seek to unite your people in the pursuit of a vision, goals, and work worthy of their best efforts, and help them to feel proud of their work, their team, their leader, and their organisation?
Being liked absolutely does not mean being weak. It takes far more skill and ability to be demanding and to set high standards while still being liked and admired. It takes an ongoing investment of time to build strong relationships, to engage with people, to share your vision, to encourage, to coach, and to mentor. It requires you to be a decent human being who cares about the people as well as the results, and one who recognises the need for a leader to deliver results as well as expect them.
It takes leadership.