Likeable Leadership

April 2, 2011

I told my MBA class last week that I don’t like everyone I work with. There are a few folks I work with that I have absolutely zero desire to hang out with either at work or outside of work. It always shocks some students when I admit that in class.

Professionalism requires that you can work with people you don’t like, and that you don’t make being friends a condition for cooperation and trust. Even if I don’t like you, I’m going to do my job the best I can and always intend to help and never hurt you. I might not walk your talk, because the way you walk and talk is probably one of the big reasons I don’t like you as a person.

People lacking professionalism make liking others a condition for cooperating with them. Schmucks only cooperate with their buddies.

You should try very hard to be friendly and considerate to everyone you work with. But you don’t have to be good friends with anyone at work to be effective.

Leaders have to learn to be unconditionally graceful.

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Comments (22)

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  1. Scott Moreno says:

    Bret once again, I could not agree with you more. We seem to be on the same page when we think about things. I currently have the same problem, but when I am at work, I am always professional because I know that I need to put aside my personal feelings and know that I am at work to help the customers. No matter what, whether I like someone or not, I do what I need to to get the job done. Thanks again for the post.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    That’s the way it has to be Scott. We have to learn to work with the turds cause we will likely never be rid of them. Thanks! Bret

  2. Haipin Cua says:

    Bret, I agree with your thoughts on being professional with and cooperating with “schmucks” but man, depending where these schmucks are on the corporate ladder, the pain and the mental torture of having to deal with them in a professional manner rather than just returning fire with fire, can be as little as a needle prick or as big as a stick up you know where.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    They do make life miserable, and work much harder than it needs to be. Thanks, Haipin! Bret

  3. Beth says:

    Hi Bret,

    This message is a huge one. It’s maybe the single most defining element of a successful career, and probably also of a happy life.

    The truth is, we can’t control other peoples’ behavior — but we can control our response to it. Whether a co-worker is merely annoying, consistently aggravating, or downright abusive, we need to keep focused on contributing value to our organization and not get sucked into an emotional give-and-take that will only drain our energy.

    Workplace conflicts are ultimately about gaining power over someone. Workplace rivalries are about winning in the war of worth. People who are serious about making a contribution don’t play these petty games.

    Successful people get their power, not by grabbing it, but by earning it in the arenas of good ideas, honest effort, and valuable achievements. They prove their worth by being useful, reliable, trustworthy and creative as they do the job they were hired to do.

    To keep their focus on these things, they refuse to join in-crowds or show favoritism; they rise above office spats or squabbles; and they commit to finding ways to deal with their problematic colleagues that don’t diminish anyone’s power or worth. They either learn how to navigate their workplace with integrity, or if necessary (to preserve their integrity) they find a new place to work.

    When we encounter pushy co-workers who push our buttons, let’s not push back — instead, let’s push past the pettiness and push ourselves onward to bigger things.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    There you go with another great blog post, Beth! Right on the money – you should be doing this 🙂 Thanks!! Bret

  4. Very true statement Bret. I have many individuals I have worked with in the past that I detested to the point of putting off the work I needed to do with them just until the deadline. Learning to get along with others is a key social skill in this day and age and needs to supersede all other individual and personal biases you have personally.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I hear you, but I think you realize it’s not professional to put off the work of those we don’t like. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  5. Eric Chaump says:


    I ran into a situation like this last week at work. We have one of those people that we work with and that person always seems to get on people’s nerves. For some reason, I always seem to get some degree of anxiety any time this person talks to me. Then, last week, we got into a small confrontation and I ended up have to get up from my desk and leave. I went out side to “cool down” before coming back in to get back to work. I never realized how hard it really was to deal with people like this in the work environment until last week. Good stuff Bret.


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Eric! Wow, the situation you describe sucks. I too have had to get up and leave a conversation over the course of my career. Got to be easier ways to build character 🙂 Thanks for sharing! Bret

  6. Bret,

    I have to say that although this post is short it speaks volumes. You make a point that many fail to understand. Although you may see a successful person and think they love working with everyone they do business with, more times than not that is not the case. You definitely need to “try very hard to be friendly and considerate to everyone you work with. But you don’t have to be good friends with anyone at work to be effective.”

    Thanks for another great post!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Devin. Great point that for most of us, working with some people is difficult. But like em or not, you do have to work with them. Thanks! Bret

  7. Beth says:

    Hi Bret,

    In response to Eric’s post, initiating a break-away to cool down a potential confrontation was a smart thing to do. It probably gave Eric a chance to get past his feelings and reframe the whole situation more constructively. But beyond that, it definitely denied the difficult co-worker the “win” of getting attention by means of overbearing behavior. Eric refused to reinforce that bad behavior. Bravo!

    There’s a term in behavioral psychology called a “pattern interrupt.” It’s based on the realization that when someone is engaging in a tirade or otherwise hijacking a situation, you can’t let it continue. If they’re refusing to partner with you towards a resolution, you can in turn refuse to partner with them in their dysfunction. Leaving the room is one glaringly effective way to do this.

    Wise people learn to recognize when they’re being baited or harassed, and they react, not with anger, but with detachment — and eventually (when they get good at pattern interrupts) even amusement.

    The next time a difficult person forces his or her agenda on you, let a light bulb go on in your head as you recognize a familiar pattern starting, and then rapidly give yourself permission to exit the arena without apology — but with a fond glance over your shoulder at your tiger whom you have just tamed by refusing to fight.

    One of my mottoes for the workplace (and I have many!) is: “When it becomes a tug of war, drop your end of the rope.”

    By the way, another good pattern interrupt is to ask a “question out of nowhere” that forces a person to stop their rampage. Similar to bluntly leaving the room, it really changes the energy, but it has the bonus of regaining balance while not completely disengaging the person.

    Ideally the question you ask is one that forces the other person to:
    – change their focus
    – pause to switch gears
    – and then either agree with you, or look ridiculous.

    This is a pattern-interrupt tactic that I just love to do. It stops the madness, but it also actually preserves the person’s self-worth while not sacrificing your own (this kind of worth equity is important to collaborative teams, and must be preserved). And here’s the scary little secret: it’s FUN. It makes me almost wish for more crazy-making people in my life so I could have the chance to use it more.

    A “question out of nowhere” goes something like this: “You know, [person’s name], this issue relates to a larger question I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Would you say that in most companies, there’s a tension between the desire to hire external superstars on one hand, and the desire to develop leadership from within on the other?”

    For a question like that, the person has to think, then either say “yes” or “no” — but either way, you now have both his/her attention, plus the attention of onlookers. And you also (probably!) have the steering wheel for the next part of the conversation.

    The best part is, you can plan these questions ahead of time. Think of a couple of really abstract must-say-yes questions that deal with your unlikeable person’s hot-button issues. (I love the “Would you say that there is a tension between” question because it’s large enough to frame both sides of any argument.)

    Going forward, just sort of have these questions in your back pocket. Rehearse them so you can try them out the next time your nemesis starts his/her out-of-control pattern again. Trust me, merely having a couple of pattern-interrupt questions handy will greatly defuse the situation and help you be much more objective, while remaining compassionate toward your snarky co-worker. You may even catch yourself looking forward to your next conflict! (And if your question doesn’t work, you can always go back to Plan A and simply leave the room!)

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Beth, you rock! Thanks 🙂 Bret

  8. Hi Bret,

    Thanks for the great post. I find it interesting to know that we don’t need to have good friends at workplace to be effective. All these years I was thinking the vice versa.

    In my previous workplace, I had some good friends whom I know before I joined that employer. I did not know anybody in my current workplace until I start working there. But I made some good friends over the years. Personally, If need to get done something from another division and I have a choice to reach more than one person to get that information, I usually go to the “friend” first.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    That’s the problem, Yathi, going to our friends first might make us feel good, but it is not always in the best interest of the organization. Thanks sor sharing your candid thoughts! Bret

  9. Thank you for this post. I experienced this in one of my jobs. I just never felt like I fit in with the rest of them, but I still worked well with them. I just tried to be professional and do my best work.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    That’s all you can do, Peter, and really, in a highly professional workplace, it should be plenty. thanks! Bret

  10. Erin Wootan says:

    This is definitely a very fine line, being respectful to someone you categorically don’t like at work and actually trying to like them. I’ve been in this situation more than a few times, and it is HARD sometimes to be nice to someone you don’t like. I think this might be one of my biggest flaws at work, separating my feelings for those I like and those I don’t. Still working on it, but it is definitely a challenge. Great post, I will think about it the next time I disagree or dislike someone at work and try to make a conscious decision to be respectful and polite for the sake of effectiveness.

    Peter Thorburn Reply:

    Giving it a try is the place to begin. As long as you can rationalize what the problem is, then there is hope of working toward a solution.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Concur, Peter. Thanks! Bret

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Good point, Erin. I don’t pretend to like people, but being professional is not pretending. It has nothing to do with liking and everything to do with simply being decent. I don’t expect everyone to like me, but I do expect them to work with me. Thanks! Bret