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The Likable Leader: Gaining Mindshare and Stoking Employee Engagement in a Diverse Workplace

By Jeb Blount, Author of People Follow You

The Gen X leader I was working with was frustrated at his inability to get his team of twenty-something, millennial employees engaged. “I just don’t get these kids!” he’d exclaimed at our first meeting. “We weren’t like this when we were their age. We had more drive. These kids just don’t even seem to care.”

“These kids.”

After a week of watching him interact with his team, I understood why his employees were disengaged. He didn’t like them, and they didn’t like him. They didn’t respect him as a leader and were not responding to his style of communication. He was pushing them away and turning them off, rather than gaining mindshare and stoking engagement.

When I sat down with him to discuss my findings, his response was predictable. “I don’t care if people like me! That’s not what I’m here for.”

I’ve heard leaders utter the same words time and again – words that ignore the foundational keystone of the unwritten leader-follower contract.

Likability is the Gateway to Engagement

People follow leaders that they like, trust, and believe have their best interests at heart. We know this to be true because data stacked upon data tells us that when people leave an organization, they are more often than not leaving a leader they dislike.

Unlikable leaders cost companies billions of dollars in turnover, lost productivity, customer dissatisfaction, legal fees, and monetary settlements. Further, employees who work for leaders they detest are less likely to be engaged or innovate – both imperatives for enterprises that wish to maintain an edge in our hyper-competitive global marketplace.

Effective leadership requires constant, consistent, and ongoing interaction with your people. Likability is critical to how you and your message are received and how your vision is actualized by the people you lead. When people find you likable, emotional walls come down just enough to allow for openness, which is essential for coaching and understanding. Likability is the gateway to emotional connections, relationships, and engagement.

Your People Know When You Don’t Like Them

One of the universal truths of human relationships is that we tend to like people who are like us. We find it easy to connect and develop relationships with certain types of people and personalities—it’s just natural.

The problem leaders face, is with so much diversity in the workplace – including the ever-widening generational gaps faced by my Gen X leader – it is neither advisable or possible to assemble a team of people who are just like you.

Complicating things are the biases that all people bring into relationships. These cultural, racial, gender, religious, socio-economic, generational, and style biases are developed over a lifetime.

With all of these biases in play, as a leader, you will naturally dislike some of the people who are working for you. The problem you face when you allow dislike to show through is your people will notice. When this happens, because people tend to respond in kind, in turn, they will find you unlikable, and your ability to lead is hindered.

First Learn to Like Your People

You must develop the discipline to control and neutralize your biases, perceptions, and behaviors when leading people who are not like you. The key is the discipline to avoid doing what comes naturally—focusing on what is different about the person—and instead sincerely appreciating and liking the unique talents they bring to the workplace.

Unless you have a natural God-given talent for recognizing and appreciating the best in people, you will have to work at, and consciously practice, these behaviors.

  • Remind yourself to notice the positive things about people rather than the negative.
  • Focus on what they do right rather than what they do wrong.
  • Become aware of what you have in common.
  • Be intentional about liking your people.

This shift in focus opens the door to building impactful relationships with a broad range of individuals.

People are more willing to follow you when you interact with them based on who they are—not who you are. The most effective leaders are masters at this. They are keenly self-aware of their behavioral style, values, biases, and beliefs; and, they are confident enough to adjust their style to deal with people who are not like them.

People Respond in Kind

The leader who seeks to like will find that people respond in kind. Therefore, when you intentionally focus on commonality, look for the best in your people, appreciate unique talents, and flex your style to be more like the people who work for you, they will respond in kind.

They will naturally find you more likable and will be more open to connecting, coaching, and giving you their best effort.

In this way, the cultural, ethnic, style, gender, and generational differences, that are often given far more credence than they should, tend to weave themselves into the fabric of highly functional teams making them strong, resilient, engaged, and far more innovative.


People Follow You Leadership Book by Jeb BlountPeople Follow You: The Real Secret to What Matters Most in Leadership

People Follow You delivers a simple and actionable formula for building strong relationships with employees and gaining their buy-in. Ultimately, people follow leaders they like, trust, and believe in, leading to higher productivity and long-term development. By putting your people first, you’ll position yourself and your company for success.

People Follow You offers five easily understood and implemented levers critical to building high-performance teams. When you become a manager people want to follow, you’ll lead your team to greater achievement, build your reputation, and earn the career advancement you deserve.

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