• Leadership

What’s Not to Like?

Kellogg’s Karen Cates on the role of likeability in leadership

Tuesday 17 December 2019


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When presented baldly it can seem self-evident, but it is remarkable how few managers really adhere to the approach – that when you treat people well, with respect and give them some responsibility, they are more likely to perform better. This is the core of people-centred – or human-centred – leadership, and it works.

A swathe of academic and consultancy literature supports this proposition. The Fortune 100 ‘Best Companies to Work For’ outperforms the longitudinal average performance of quoted US businesses by nearly 4% a year over two decades. That is a remarkable return.

Barry-Wehmiller Industries – a conglomerate led by the champion of ‘Truly Human Leadership’, Bob Chapman, that purchases under-performing and dysfunctional businesses and turns them around with their people-focused approach – reports a CAGR of 18% since its first acquisition in 1987, compared to the S&Ps equivalent average of 10% over the same period.. (See: ‘CAGR of the Stock Market’ –

So why is everyone not just being nicer, more helpful, and more supportive to their employees? In short: why aren’t we becoming more likeable? Karen Cates, a leadership consultant and adjunct professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, observes “My concern about being over-focused on ‘likeability’ is that this becomes a prescription for just being ‘nice in the workplace’, and while being nice, and being civil is a good thing, it is not how to be a good leader.”

In fact, Cates suggests that merely ‘putting on a happy face’ in an effort to appear likeable, not only brings limited to no tangible benefits, it may actually lead people to mistrust you, especially if this is a clear change of behaviour from a previous one. Cates makes the distinction between how leaders are perceived. ‘Likeable’ leaders may be perceived as good leaders, but they may not fully be achieving what is required of them.

Emotional intelligence studies suggest that adaptability to different contexts is a key capability for effective leaders, and those that can change their approach dependent on the shifting demands of a given situation are going to be much more effective.


Join Karen Cates on Kellogg School of Management’s Energizing People for Performance program to develop people-engagement strategies for your organization

Dates: April 26-29; Nov 8-11, 2020  │  Format: In-class study

Location: Evanston IL USA


Leaders should not put likeability above effectiveness. There are times when the ‘humour and smiles’ need to go, and a ‘let’s get this done approach’ is required. Cates goes further, “Even, the ‘nasty boss approach’ can be really effective – but in short, small doses – to get everyone's attention and say ‘hey, we've got to make some changes around here’. You can then create–with an earnest approach – that more likeable persona as you move forward. Likeability is a good thing to have in your leadership toolkit, but it shouldn't be the biggest hammer in the box.”

Cates recognizes however, that in a simplistic world, ‘likeable’ is clearly better than a fear-based leadership approach. “Fear-based leadership takes up a lot of energy – keeping people on their toes, always worried about interacting with the boss – and it drives things underground; people hide themselves and hide issues, to keep out of the spotlight. Likeability can be the opposite side of that coin as it draws people out. They’re glad to see you because they know something good is going to happen from the exchanges that you have.”

For Cates, this highlights an issue that people sometimes struggle with. While leaders must react in a consistent manner to situations, that does not mean their reaction has to be the same every time. Rather only that they cannot be erratic in their behaviour. Urgent situations may require urgent responses, complex ones may require thoughtful analysis, and enduring ones a different approach altogether. All are different reactions, but leaders need to maintain their style of response and apply that to each consistently.  “Likeability can contribute to a sense of safety, a sense of trust, and that's really important – as long as it's consistent. You don't always have to be likeable, but you have to be likeable when people are expecting you to be likable.”

While likeability is therefore not a panacea, or silver bullet for leadership – it is still a thing well worth fostering. Cates notes that it is not difficult to be likeable with people you get on with, and like-minded with yourself, but the task becomes a lot more challenging with people who you do not ‘click with’, and who may rub you up the wrong way.

The first trick is to try and identify ‘commonalities’ which may not be – and in fact likely will not be – work related – i.e. places you have visited, sports you are both interested in, shared hobbies.

The second trick is to increase your mindfulness of the workspace around you. Increase the sensitivity of your antennae for others. “Remember to acknowledge people when you see them. Acknowledge their work, acknowledge their successes. It's surprising how many folks don't turn around in the middle of a really tough job and go, ‘Hey, you know, we're making some great progress here. Thank you’.”

Keep in mind that your colleagues are individuals with lives beyond the workplace as well as in it. Good leaders remember to ask after children who were ill, for instance, but also understand their people’s individual career goals and aspirations. “When people feel that their leaders are trying to help them with the things that are personal to them, not just their personal lives, but their personal career goals, their personal strengths, that mindfulness can make a huge difference to likeability.”

The next level beyond this mindfulness, is to build your empathy with both individuals and the team – being aware of their current energy. “I’m a big fan of saying, ‘Boy, this group seems frazzled today,’ or ‘You seem really angry about the situation. We better talk about it’. Just acknowledging that can make people feel more a part of the team and more effective as a member of the team,” says Cates.

As with any behaviour change, these things need to be practiced and iterated to make them essential habits. Being likeable is clearly to be encouraged, it helps on a number of fronts – but it is not sufficient in itself to achieve high performance. Alternative leadership behaviours and responses are also needed. The best time to start acquiring and practicing this mix is, as always, right now.

Karen Cates is Academic Director and faculty for both Kellogg’s ‘Energizing People for Performance’ short, open-enrolment program and Kellogg’s flagship 'Executive Development Program'. 

The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University is recognized globally as a pioneer in general management education that offers innovative academic opportunities for today’s leading thinkers

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