Is a “Need to be Liked” Undermining Your Ability to Lead?

“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.”

– Lao Tzu

We all want to be liked by others.

Some psychologists believe the desire to be liked begins at birth when we are dependent on caregivers to survive. Others take an evolutionary perspective and point out how being part of a social group enabled our ancient ancestors to survive and pass along their genes. This likely caused humans to evolve to feel hurt by rejection, which reinforces group bonds and promotes group-strengthening behaviors.

Now, tens of thousands of years later, young humans are still taught the virtues of being liked. Sharing toys, waiting your turn, and being nice to others are behaviors that yield praise for children. These same ideals continue into our adult lives—especially at work, where we’re rewarded for a job well done and criticized for falling short.

That said, the desire to be liked generally serves us well as members of groups, teams, and society. But if you’re a supervisor, manager, or leader, a strong need to be liked diminishes your efficacy. It can even backfire completely and cause your team to like you less!

According to psychologists, indicators of a strong need to be liked include:

  • Continuous efforts to please people, including conflict avoidance
  • Heightened anxiety when facing disapproval
  • Willingness to compromise your values and/or integrity to avoid rejection
  • Reluctance to stand out from the group or go against the grain
  • Fixation on a person who doesn’t seem to like you

Now consider these relatively common situations where a desire to be liked undermines effective leadership:

  • Delivering bad news effectively
  • Making and acting on hard, right decisions
  • Giving effective, constructive feedback
  • Ending non-fit customer relationships

Why? Each example includes an inherent risk that others might like you less!

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you should be disliked by your team, but I do believe you must learn to be comfortable jeopardizing short-term likeability to pursue a worthy goal.

Remember, at some level we all have a need to be liked. So, it’s not a question of whether, but rather how much your need to be liked influences your thinking and behavior. Fortunately for managers and leaders, there’s a more worthy, game-changing replacement habit to consider:


The most effective leaders I know have developed a stronger affinity for needing to be respected than for needing to be liked. This powerful reframing enables more of the right thinking and right moves to achieve more.

Let’s consider two different real-world scenarios where a need to be liked is preventing an otherwise well-intentioned leader from making the right move. We’ll review each situation and explain how reframing “being liked” into “being respected” would help these leaders improve.

Scenario 1: Sarah

Sarah owns and operates a marketing agency with 20 employees. She considers herself a good boss because her clients and staff seem to like her, and she’s grown the business slowly but surely since she opened it eight years ago.

There are three other managers in the firm, one of whom—Chuck, the Director of Operations—isn’t holding his team accountable. As a result, client work is often late and/or missing the mark against expectations. Sarah has been stepping in to make things right for clients, which she finds frustrating but necessary.

What’s worse is that Mitch, one of Sarah’s star Account Managers reporting to Chuck, has decided to leave the firm for a competitor.

Part of her frustration with Chuck is that she already told him he needs to deliver client work more reliably. “C’mon Chuck, you know how important it is for us to meet our client commitments, right?” Sarah said. “Let me know how I can support you, okay? We can do this! We can do this!”

Meanwhile, the voice in Sarah’s head told a different story, even as her comments to Chuck were leaving her mouth. Why doesn’t he get how critical this is? I wonder if Mitch is leaving us because he doesn’t like working for Chuck. We’re going to lose clients if we can’t reliably deliver, and then what? Will I have to lay people off?

In this scenario, Sarah’s need to be liked is unconsciously preventing her from giving essential, critical, pointed feedback and coaching to Chuck. As a result, she’s risking everything she’s worked for the last eight years in a misplaced effort to avoid conflict. Her internal dialogue indicates she knows the right thing to do, but like many well-intentioned leaders, she can’t bring herself to say what needs to be said.

Scenario 2: Tom

Tom’s conversation with his accountant last week is really stressing him out. Over the past 12 years, he’s grown his bicycle shop to three full-service locations offering sales and service. This time last year, his accountant warned Tom that his costs seemed to be increasing faster than his revenue. Last week, Tom learned he lost money for the first time since his start-up year in the business. Something had to give.

His accountant remained optimistic, however, and suggested how Tom could easily fix the problem: All he had to do was raise prices to cover the increased expenses.

Tom is a well-regarded business leader in his community and takes pride in his personal relationships with his customers. As the business has grown and additional locations opened, he’s always vowed to take care of his customers, even if he isn’t able to know most of them personally. 

Tom is a giver, and through his business contributes to local causes, sponsors children’s sports leagues, and is a vocal champion of cycling safety. Having to increase prices and disappoint his community is among his greatest fears. He justified years of flat pricing as a way of “giving back” and building trust, with an eye on generating additional business volume in return.

All of that has now caught up with him, as he faces the choice of increasing prices or slowly allowing the business to wither—one uncomfortable quarter after the next—until an inevitable end.

Tom knows the right thing to do. He acknowledges that plenty of other businesses he patronizes have increased their prices. But he doesn’t want to disappoint his customers and his community.

Replacing Likeability with Respect

Like so many business leaders, both Sarah and Tom have a need to be liked, preventing them from doing the hard, right things needed to operate their firms. 

  • Sarah isn’t providing Chuck with the direct feedback and coaching he needs and isn’t able to seriously contemplate replacing him with a more capable operations head.
  • Tom can’t bring himself to increase prices, even though he knows the viability of his business is at stake.

Now let’s reframe these scenarios through the lens of needing to be respected rather than being liked:


There are no secrets in any organization, and Sarah’s inability to shoot straight with Chuck is transparent to her employees. Though she may be liked by her team, Sarah is not respected as a result. This could explain why Mitch, her star Account Manager, decided to leave.

When she finally does give Chuck the feedback and coaching he needs, it’s true that he might not like her in that moment, or for the next few days. But he’ll certainly respect her for being straightforward and setting clear, non-negotiable expectations.

In the event that Chuck isn’t able to improve his performance and Sarah decides to replace him in the role, her consistency and action will earn respect from her team.


Tom’s inability to increase prices over so many years has likely been noticed by other business leaders around town. Odds are, they’re wondering why he’s not doing the obvious thing, which has certainly diminished their professional respect for him—even though they appreciate all that he contributes to the community.

Tom’s accountant, other professional advisors, and senior staff have also been observing his odd reluctance to do the right thing for his business, his family, and his staff. Though they like Tom tremendously, many are likely questioning his business acumen and decision-making.

When he finally does the right thing and implements across-the-board price increases, it’s true that some of his customers might not like it. But they’ll respect the decision when they come to understand that the survival of his business is at stake, as are Tom’s valuable community contributions. The decision will also repair Tom’s image with the local business community.


“I am not concerned with being liked or disliked. I am concerned with being respected.”

– Jackie Robinson

There’s a classic scene in an episode of HBO’s long-running series The Sopranos where mob boss Tony Soprano is arguing with his nephew and crew captain, Christopher. “What happens, I decide, not you,” Tony says. “And if you don’t love me anymore, that breaks my heart. You don’t gotta love me, but you will respect me.”

While you probably won’t ever find yourself heading an organized crime family, the sentiment within your own organization should remain the same. It’s far more valuable to be respected than to be liked as a leader. As with Sarah and Tom, if you’re not saying or doing something you “know” you should, it’s likely because your need to be liked is greater than your need to be respected.

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Remember, there will always be unintended negative consequences that stem from a desire to be liked! For Sarah, it was a lack of respect from her employees; for Tom, it was from the community he so deeply cared about.

By focusing on being respected instead, you’ll be able to lead, make hard choices, and act on what needs to be done. You’ll become more effective in your role and experience one of the greatest ironies and gifts of leadership: Highly respected leaders are also well-liked.


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