As people move from individual contributor into management roles, one of the concerns that come up is how to remain liked by the team. You don't want to do a poor job and be thought less of, you don't want to damage morale, and you may be uncertain about how to relate as an authority figure to those you worked alongside. I wanted to share an account of how one of my clients – we'll call him Bob – successfully navigated such a transition.
Bob was promoted into a leadership position of a high-powered team. He wanted to improve his management skills, for fear that he “do a poor job and have everyone hate me." His heart was in the right place: he appreciated the people on his team and was nervous about being an inadequate leader, degrading morale, and causing people to quit. He felt it important that people like him, and thought being nice was a good place to start.
But then Bob went back to square one with respect to his new position and clarified his role and priorities. He outlined the business goals he felt were important for the success of his team. He defined his mission, clarified his purpose with his own management, and spelled out desired outcomes. Then he looked at what was working and what wasn't, both with respect to his management approach and his team's performance. Ultimately, Bob realized that, while being nice was an important value of his, he needed to focus on being effective.
The downside of "nice"
What happens when you worry too much about being nice?
You don't hold people accountable. Work doesn't get done and you allow underperformers to coast. Productivity and morale both take a hit.
People aren't sure if you're their friend or their boss. They may like you, but they might not respect you.
You resist making tough decisions. While your job may be to solve problems, being overly sensitive to how you are perceived leads to delay and avoidance.
You don't set proper boundaries. When you involve yourself in everything brought your way to accommodate others, time and energy get spent on low-priority or no-priority tasks, leaving important work unaddressed.
When you worry about what everyone else is thinking, you second-guess yourself. Presumably, you had some expertise that got you into a leadership position; don't abandon your own abilities and judgment in favor of what you think people might prefer.
Ultimately, focusing too much on whether your people like you quite likely ensures that they won't.
How the story ends
So how did things go with Bob? He worked on developing his management skills, began actively engaging with his team and learned an appropriate way to hold people accountable for their responsibilities. Over time he developed a style that was caring but effective. Realizing that being capable did not entail being a “mean boss", he found a comfortable camaraderie with the team based on mutual respect. And instead of being afraid that people would leave, he focused on providing vision, direction and support. In fact, an employee did leave Bob's team, but the departure was based on business and performance criteria. Whether this employee liked him or not did not enter into the equation, and Bob no longer fears people quitting on him.
Bob has a motivated, high-performing team that appreciates having an involved leader. Ironically, it was only by turning his focus away from how people perceived him that brought him the respect and likeability he originally wanted.
The bottom line
Remember as you develop your own style that being kind and empathetic are excellent qualities in a leader. But they are not the same as being effective. So focus on your business purpose, align on your desired outcomes, and actively engage with your people. Being liked and respected will follow.