Likeability, Presence, and Leadership

Like signI’ve been coaching a serious-minded young executive on the value of likeability. A few days ago, inspired by that conversation, I started to write this article on likeability, and was thrilled to see that the Wall Street Journal had the same idea…today! (September 29th.)

What’s with all this interest in likeability? Is it one of those things that you either have or don’t have? And why does this matter at work?

Here’s this coach’s point of view:

  1. Likeability is an aspect of presence and thus can be learned.
  2. It matters more and more at work.

First, learning to be more likeable: In a research study published by the Harvard Business School, the secret to likeability is asking questions to learn about the other person. In first meetings, people who made a genuine effort to learn about the other rather than just talking about themselves were shown to be more likeable. The research isolated the quality of responsiveness, which includes the specific behaviors of listening, understanding, validation and caring. Behaviors. Not magic. But the feeling those behaviors evoke is magical: Remember how it felt the last time a leader really listened to you in that way? With an understanding of your situation, validation of your perspective, and caring for your well-being? Felt pretty good. When leaders demonstrate responsiveness, workers tend to be more loyal. Makes sense.

To be truly likeable, though, you can’t just ask questions — that might feel like an interrogation — so it’s important that the conversation have a balanced sense of give and take. (Google the well-known model for this called the Johari Window.)

Why does likeability matter so much at work? As Shellenbarger reports, likeability is a critical quality in an increasingly virtual work environment. It’s really hard to come across as warm and affable when you’re talking to a phone or a video screen. (If you’ve read my book, you know that I despair over the robotic voice many people default to when on a conference phone!) Beyond the virtual, numerous research studies have shown that we are much more likely to communicate quickly and openly with people we like, all other things being equal. Think about it. In your typical day at the office, aren’t there folks that you’re glad to see in the hallway or at a meeting? How did that “gladness” come about? First from rapport, then from trust, and underscoring it all…likeability.

How to begin?
1. There are many opportunities to build rapport both inside and outside of work. Networking events, interviews, new hires, new project teams, and volunteer events are all great opportunities to build new relationships, otherwise known as opportunities to like and be liked by others. Got a first meeting coming up? Take a few minutes to prepare yourself. How? Keep reading.
2. Responsiveness requires being 100% present, fully dedicated to that particular person at that moment. No distractions. No judgment. No hidden agendas. Just a genuine interest in learning about others and staying focused and in the moment. Preparing some casual, open-ended questions before a first meeting can help you feel more comfortable.
3. Finally, decide in advance what you want to share about yourself to help break the ice and uncover things you might have in common. Make a few notes for yourself so that you feel prepared — nervousness usually leads to overtalking, and you want to stay calm, present and other-focused.

And that is something we all can do…with dedication and maybe a little practice. Want more tips? Email me!