Which would you prefer: to be liked or feared?

Which would you prefer: to be liked or feared?

You might be familiar with the Machiavellian position that it’s better to be feared than loved.  Unless you’re interested in acquiring raw power, I’m going to say that it’s the wrong question to ask if your objective is to get people to help you achieve your ambition or business mission.

If you’re the kind of leader, boss, or colleague who wants to inspire people to do really great work then you shouldn’t be concerned about being liked or being feared  because neither by itself leads to people doing great, really great work—at least not sustainably.

The problem with nice bosses

Nice bosses are often ineffective at getting great results.  Many of the nice bosses I’ve experienced or heard about use being nice as a strategy to hide their incompetence, lack of vision and risk averse nature.  All qualities that eventually lead to low performance and job dis-satisfaction.

Nice bosses often suffer from wanting to be liked and they take care not to upset the people they lead.  Having being liked as job 1 leads to top-performers being unchallenged, and feeling like they have to work with sub-performers.  A players leave and the remaining B and C players settle into a culture of contentment and stagnation that produces only adequate work at best.

The problem with scary bosses

Scary bosses on the other hand often don’t care at all about being liked.   Scary bosses are often just the opposite of the chronic nice guy bosses.  Scary bosses are often scary because they are extremely competent, have a clear vision of what they want and are willing to take risks to get there.

Because they are often very talented, they are often egotistical, and tend to resort to bullying to get their required results.  They know they have power to inflict harm and they are not afraid to do so to get what they want.

Scary bosses can be effective in the short-run but are usually ineffective in the long-run because they burn people out.  Fear is a stressful emotion and if felt over the long-term makes people either physically crash, or leave the company.

Getting sustainable results requires multi-dimensional people

The thing to get is that no boss, parent, colleague, friend or coach should be one-dimensional.  A nice boss should be able to get tough, make unpopular decisions and have tough conversations.  A scary boss should also be able to show compassion and consideration, and be able to joke around now and then.

It’s the capacity to adapt that matters, not whether a person is pre-dominantly nice or scary.

What’s more important is being respected

What I think is non-negotiable in a work environment is respect.  Respect—the desire of one to take care of what matters to another— is what matters most to effective leadership, and many are the liked or feared bosses who are not respected.

To lead you must be respected and to be respected you must have a vision that people—your team and followers—must share and be passionate about fulfilling.  To be respected people must know and care about what’s important to you.

The most useful practical application of respect is not about admiration for what you’ve done in the past but about having people take care of your concerns: what you’re creating or caring for NOW.

Are you respected?  A test:

With a couple easy questions you can accurately assess whether you are respected.

  1. Do the people you lead  know what’s important to you? If people you lead don’t even know what matters to you,  they don’t respect you. And if you don’t communicate it to them it certainly isn’t their fault.
  2. Do people care about what’s important to you?  Great if people know your concerns, but if they don’t think or act to help you take care of them, then they not only don’t respect you, they ACTiVeLy DIS-RESPECT you.

If the answer to these two questions are no, then it doesn’t matter if you’re liked or feared.  If people don’t respect you they won’t help you achieve your ambition or business mission.   And for people who continue to work for people they don’t respect, it’s a good sign that they don’t respect themselves.


Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.