Likeability: A Factor in Managerial Success

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A 2007 survey in which 90,000 employees from all over the world were interviewed revealed that only 20% of those questioned were attempting to perform to their utmost abilities in the workforce. The remaining 80% were reported to be disengaged (Bhargava). What was the cause of the overwhelmingly lackluster workplace attitudes? A number of researchers have identified the root of the cause in a failure of leadership to personally interact and form bonds of human sympathy with subordinates (Bhargava; Pink; Holmes). Indeed, Daniel Pink has shown in his best-selling work Drive that leaders who demonstrate likeability in the workplace actually have a higher success rate in motivating teams in the long run. Likeable managers establish workplace cultures that provide a necessary foundation for attracting, forming and keeping autonomous, masterful and purpose-driven employees in their workplace environment. This paper will show how likeability is a factor in management and how it can be effectively utilized to overcome employee disengagement.

What is likeability? Likeability has been defined many different ways. Daniel Pink describes it as an outward show of trust between two people, which is maintained by a mutual sense of authenticity and transparency. Bhargava, on the other hand, describes likeability as a recipe of empathy, sympathy, charity, and the “ability to offer value” (108). Thus, it may be said that managerial likeability in the workplace is more than just good-natured friendliness; it is a kind of intellectual and emotional glue that brings two or more people together in a feeling and/or knowledge of oneness, togetherness, openness, camaraderie, and mission. Underlying the “friendly” aspect of likeability is the awareness of being part of a task, whose goal is clear, recognized, desirable, and attainable.

Furthermore, successful management has been defined in terms which utilize the concept of likeability. Luthans asserts that success in management is not a result of engaging in “the same day-to-day activities as effective managers” but rather in those activities designed to “find the way to get ahead…to be friendly…both inside and outside the firm…[to] find a common interest [among all]…and interact with them on that level (130). Luthans’s concept of successful management is echoed by Chet Holmes, author of the best-selling The Ultimate Sales Machine. Holmes insists that successful managers are as concerned about the people with whom they surround themselves as they are about making progress in the workplace, going beyond the status-quo, and increasing sales, morale, demand, and growth. Success is built on forging relationships, and relationships are built on likeability, as defined above.

To show to what degree the above is true, and to what degree likeability is a factor in managerial success, a number of studies have been performed in recent years. One way to examine to what degree likeability is a factor in managerial success, is to examine what happens when that factor is non-existent. Michael Lewis described a loss of one of the fundamental aspects of likeability — authenticity — when he recounted the global economic crisis of 2007-8 in his book The Big Short. Lewis noted that there existed on Wall Street a mentality of “false conviction,” palpable in several firms, where firms’ managers and team goals were detached from reality (114). The allurement of easy money through the selling of bundles of bad debts to unsuspecting buyers triggered a massive backlash when people began to realize that the risk of buying these bad debts far outweighed the reward. Reality re-asserted itself on every level. The conviction that managers brought to subordinates turned overnight into fear and helplessness, as thousands of employees were laid off — employees who had “bought into” the false convictions of their leaders. Had their managers been more authentic in their approach to their goals of selling, they may have realized the terrible risk associated with these bad debts before they eagerly began their buying and selling.

One reason that managerial likeability is lost is that there is poor communication between manager and subordinates. Tourish and Hargie show in their research that to guard against the sort of “false convictions” that enabled the 2007-8 economic crisis, managers should conduct a communication audit (133). A communication audit lets managers know how communication flows in the workplace, whether it is a one-way flow, from top-down, or a two-way flow, top-down and back up. Their research indicates that communication flows in most workplace environments are still merely one-way, which may account for the reason that 80% of employees feel disconnected. According to Tourish and Hargie, communication is “still regarded as something that managers do to their subordinates; they drop information like depth charges on to those employees submerged in the organizational ocean but make it very clear that they do not expect to receive any feedback torpedoes in return” (132).

Tourish and Hargie make clear that one-way flow is undesirable on many levels: first, one-way communication means that information is only coming in one direction — typically from top-down — which in turn suggests that the subordinate cannot readily send information back to his or her superior. Such a one-way street creates the possibility of having an uninformed management team, a team which will fail to know and/or understand how its subordinates are handling and/or using the information which has come down to them from above. Tourish and Hargie argue that a more likeable approach to communication is a two-way communication channel, by which subordinates can communicate with superiors and relay necessary information when said information needs relaying. This approach is more likeable because it rests on the principle of transparency. Access routes are open and available. Employees can be confident that the sharing of information is possible, acceptable, and encouraged, thus allowing the overall workplace climate to be satisfactory. When such a two-way channel is missing, the climate can quickly sour.

Nonetheless, Tourish and Hargie note that certain ethical dilemmas can arise in any workplace regarding communication flows. One such problem is the “see no evil, hear no evil” approach, which allows individuals who would rather not deal with communicating unwelcome news. By pretending not to see conflict and by not reporting on it, they imagine they shield themselves from potential danger. Just culture confidential reporting systems have been established by some companies, but there is much research to indicate that such systems only work so long as those who manage the workplace conduct themselves according to the same ethical principles that they expect from their employees. And when no principles are expected, failure is a likely result, as Lewis shows in his Wall Street study. In short, likeability is a factor in successful management because it is supported by principles which are associated with a universal idea of goodness and rightness. Without such an idea and the necessary will to act accordingly, managers can lead their subordinates down a path of failure.

What makes the issue even more complicated is the fact that “looking the other way” can be hailed by some as a likeable trait, whereas by others it can be hailed as an unlikable trait. It is precisely such a subjective view of likeability that has led some critics to argue that likeability should not be regarded as an important factor in workplace success. Indeed, the problem of subjectivity is a serious one that must be considered. At what point does objective analysis give way to subjectivity? Richard Weaver makes the case in his book Ideas Have Consequences that the possession of universal notions are essential to the formation and sustainability of any culture or community. Without accepting a universal (or objective) notion of likeability, it is difficult to contend that likeability is a factor in managerial success. One must be clear that when likeability is discussed, it is being discussed (in so far as this report is concerned) as defined at the beginning of this report. Subjective interpretations may occur in the workplace environment. But how do they shape worker success? Do subjective considerations have an impact? The example of Enron provides a fitting context in which these questions may be answered.

The management team of Enron consisted of a team of men, most of whom were considered likeable. The problem was the age-old problem of the “likeable villain,” which Shakespeare depicted in Othello through the character of Iago. At Enron, the likeable “bad guys” were Andy Fastow, Enron’s CFO, Jeff Skilling, Enron’s CEO, and Ken Lay, Enron’s COB. As Elkind and McLean report, the company’s “financials didn’t make sense” (8). But none of these men felt it imperative to make the financials “make sense” — both were more concerned with what they could get away with by making the “books” too confusing to comprehend by outside investors. They erected a Ponzi scheme. On the outside, they appeared likeable. And even on the inside, to those insiders who were in on the scheme, such as Fastows friends and subordinates, the plan was “likeable.” But it was not likeable according to any universal understanding of rightness. “Likeability” at Enron meant “progress” without authenticity and transparency. It was a hollow likeability that indeed appealed to some. The fact that it could appeal to some, as it did at Enron, simply reinforces the idea that likeability be defined according to universal notions of rightness. Nonetheless, managerial success is still dependent upon both managers and employees identifying with such a universal. Highlighting Enron’s case of inauthentic likeability is Kass’s 1986 study, which states that likeability “is in itself a simplistic term because it assumes that all employees…view themselves by the same light,” whereas in reality, some employees view “themselves as stewards of the public interest, while by contrast, their organizational compatriots [see] themselves as agents of the organization (36).

Contrasting examples of leaders who found managerial success through true likeability are plentiful. Lee Iacocca is one example. Iacocca was an expert at inspiring his “followers to perform beyond expectations while transcending self-interest for the good of the organization” (Avolio, Walumbwa, Weber 423). Iacocca manifested a desire to achieve a common good — and that manifestation served as the foundation for his likeability. When Iacocca took over as head of Ford, his employees consistently performed “beyond expectations; he spoke the way they did, and did not put on “airs” or utilize a one-way communication flow. He showed his employees that he was in the trenches with him, that he cared about what they did, that he was there for them and expected them to be there for him. He showed flexibility with persons, but rigidity with principles. He encouraged innovation, true creativity, as the leaders of Enron desired to do, failing only because their goal did not include the common good but rather their own personal, individual good. Likeability, as Iacocca showed, is other-centered, not self-centered. This is the point that Chet Holmes makes again and again in The Ultimate Sales Machine. In order to sell a product to a client, you have to sell yourself, and in order to sell yourself, you have to be a person that another would want to invest time and money in. You have to become a friend, in the true sense of the word. That is why Holmes does not hesitate to introduce clients to his family, to vacation with them, to invest himself in their lives and get them to invest in his. It is part of the likeability factor. Before he died, Holmes was one of the most successful businessmen and motivational speakers in America.

As Bhargava states in Likeonimcs, “In order to be more believable and more trusted — you need to be more likeable” (xviii). Bhargava supports this thesis with numerous examples of how managers transformed their businesses and workplace environments from lackluster failures to great successes. He cites a range of cases, from lard salesmen to NFL team owners to hotel managers in Mumbai.

Bhargava even considers the argument that success does not hinge on likeability. He points to Steve Jobs as an example of someone who succeeded, yet seemed “to be completely unlikeable” (xxx). Jobs was not the only unlikeable pioneer in Silicon Valley, Bhargava states. Larry Ellison was another. Bhargava explains their success this way: there is a difference between likeability and “being nice because of a human need to be liked” (xxxii). It is an important distinction to make in order to truly understand what likeability is and why Jobs and Ellison, two notoriously unlikeable guys, were, still, strictly speaking, likeable in the managerial sense. They did not need to be liked. They did not feel a need to get others to like them. That was not their goal. Their goal was to access ingenuity and produce great products. They were driven by a vision. They succeeded in getting others to embrace their vision by inspiring something in them, too. They coupled competence with authenticity. They were transparent in their offensiveness. They hid nothing about themselves. Their characters were evident. People had the choice to take them or leave them. They showed that likeability can be defined even more narrowly than has been done in this report — that it can be understood simply as the ability to perform well, to fulfill one’s duty. Jobs and Ellison performed well and did their duties as leaders: their “personalities” did not factor into the equation one way or another. What did factor into the equation was their ability to get others to latch onto their ideas because they were good ones. Thus, the likeability factor, with regards to these two men, depended more on their intellectual ability than it did on their ability to establish sympathetic personas.

In conclusion, this is the point that Bhargava makes — along with Weaver, Elkind, McLean, Lewis, Holmes, and many others: to understand likeability, one must have a sense of universal goodness, which can be applied in many different ways, depending on particular contexts. However, that likeability has to be authentic — it cannot be full of “false conviction” or be rooted in a likeable deviance of the Iago variety. It has to be rooted in ideas and actions that strive towards the common good, as Iacocca showed at Ford and as Bhargava’s research has indicated. Likeability is other-centered, not self-centered. Managers who manifest a need to be liked are missing the point: the point is not about them — but about others. What can they do for others? That is the question that motivated even Jobs and Ellison, two unlikeable men, who had very likeable ideas.

Memo: What I Learned

What I have learned through this research project is a number of things. As a writer, I learned that conveying ideas or making a point requires a nuanced approach, such as is provided by the Rogerian model of argumentation. I attempted to use this model in order to express the point that I wanted to make. It appeared to be a good model, one that set up a thesis, then gave room for possible rebuttals, and in the end found a kind of compromise solution. I believe I do this in my paper, ending as it does with an example of two unlikeable manager/leaders, who, yet, can be viewed as likeable in a way.

As a scholar, I learned that the more research one does, the better he comes to grasp his subject. I read widely and broadly when I approached this subject, looking at books such as Likeonomics, scholarly journals and articles, and real-life journalistic works, such as Lewis’s The Big Short and Elkind and McLean’s The Smartest Guys in the Room. Each piece shed new light and a fresh perspective on the subject, and it was my intention to bring together all of these aspects and fuse them into one new approach to how and why likeability is a factor in successful management.

Finally, as a thinker and reader, I learned that it is impossible to truly know what to think if you have not read all there is to read. Now, that may sound impossible, and it probably is, but one can certainly attempt to read as much as possible. Digesting it and understanding it, however, requires a certain perspective — and what I learned is that adopting a good perspective is as important as collecting data. Perspective, like likeability, depends on a universal notion of rightness. Grasping that universal notion is, it seems, what is ultimately at stake in all things.

Works Cited

Avolio, B.J., Walumbwa, F.O., Weber, T.J. “Leadership: Current Theories,

Research, and Future Directions.” Annual Review of Psycholog, 60 (2009): 421-29. Print.

Bhargava, Rohit. Likeonomics. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2012. Print.

Elkind, Peter; McLean, Bethany. Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room. NY: Penguin,

2013. Print.

Holmes, Chet. The Ultimate Sales Machine. NY: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Kass, H. “Whistleblowers and the Ethics of Stewardship: A Comment on Truelson.” Dialogue 8.3 (1986): 36-45. Print.

Lewis, Michael. The Big Short. NY W.W. Norton and Company, 2011. Print.

Luthans, F. (1988). “Successful vs. Effective Real Managers.” Academy of Management Executive 2.2 (1988): 127-132. Print.

Pink, Daniel. Drive. NY: Riverhead Books, 2011. Print.

Tourish, D., Hargie, O. “Communication Audits: Building World Class

Communication Systems.” Handbook of Corporate Communication and Public Relations. UK: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Weaver, Richard. Ideas Have Consequences. IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984.