When You’re the Boss: Being Liked vs. Being Respected

likeable-business-bitchI’m curious, ladies: have you struggled to find a good balance between being a boss (or coworker) who is well liked and one who is respected? Did you have to unlearn the idea that you have to be a “bitch in business” to get ahead?

Let me back up a bit. I was interested to read about Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit a few months ago — particularly some of the best advice the women leaders ever received. This one quote struck me, from Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, chair of DreamWorks Animation, and a director at Starbucks and Estee Lauder:

Smile a lot. People want to work with people they like, people who are happy. … You’ll be dealing with a lot of hard issues, and they’re going to come across better if you have a smile on your face.*

I happen to agree with this advice — one of the things I’ve learned in business is that people definitely prefer to do business with people they like. (I’ve even advised readers to look friendly in their corporate headshots.) It seems obvious, but this flies smack in the face of the mythos of the Bitch — younger women in particular seem to revere it, like it’s a goal. Case in point, pictured above: the amusing, but frustrating video Bitch in Business, produced by the student club, Columbia Business School Follies.

Interestingly, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office has two chapters on this — one titled “Mistake 16: Needing to Be Liked,” and the second, “Mistake 17: Not Needing to be Liked.”  From Chapter 17:

Like many women, [the woman in the example] had to learn to allow her human, more stereotypically feminine side to emerge while at the same time capitalizing on the best of her more stereotypically masculine style of management.

So readers, I’m curious — how do you balance being likable and being respected? Did you have to unlearn a stereotype that successful women are bitches? What was the best advice you’ve gotten along these lines — or what advice would you give younger women? 

* I can’t find a link to the quote online, but it’s from Fortune Magazine, January 2015. Here’s an awesome video of Hobson speaking at the same conference about how she stopped apologizing for being a black woman.


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  1. This is so appropriate, Kat. Now that I am a MANAGER, I have to balance being NICE versis being FIRM. Mason like’s to take advantage of my good nature, so he get’s away with alot of things others would NOT. Plus, he is sleepeing with Lynn, and that lead’s to him comeing in late with her and NOT even haveing FRESH clotheing. FOOEY!

    The manageing partner has counseled me to be firmer with him, particulearly b/c he is NOT admitted to the NY Bar, and he also is lazy, according to the manageing partner, who ONLEY hired him b/c his father is an important freind. I therefore warned MASON that he will have to stop all of the nonsense with Lynn, or I will have to dock his bonus. We will see how this turns out. YAY!

    • As a long time reader, I’m so confused why these posts by this person are allowed to stay up. Obviously this is evidence of either seriously trolling or major inappropriate behavior going on at this person’s office. I’m also shocked that anyone with such horrific spelling and grammar would have any experience in the upper echelons of big business or big law.

      • I am in agreement with this statement. I am also confused why this person’s posts are allowed to stay. I think the posts are fake and do not add to the conversation.

  2. This is a huge topic. I will bite.

    Yes, be friendly. Don’t be abrupt, curt, or tactless. Yes, men don’t have to be friendly. Yes, it’s unfair. If you are having a bad day, make a joke about it and isolate yourself as much as you can.

    From recent experience, women can be most sensitive to other women’s body language. Especially young, inexperienced women who get defensive when I try to find the source of a problem. Try to frame it in terms of the institution, miscommunication, lack of training, etc. She will get defensive and try to prove she did everything right (erm, no you didn’t and no, don’t immediately go to my supervisor if you don’t understand my instructions). Let it go, be the bigger person and don’t respond to her lengthy emails. Just drop it.

    Be an expert, a resource. Be the person people feel that they can get help from. Don’t be stingy, backstabbing, or a hijacker (of their project).

    Ask for help. People love to help. It establishes that you value their input and opinions. Use, or try to use, their suggestions.

    • I am going to add one simple trick: greet others with “good morning” or “good afternoon” instead of just “hi” or “hey”. It is a tad more formal and, for me, sets the “this is business” tone.

      I think the “facilitator” or “servant leader” style works best for a lot of women. It does take some practice to strike the balance between motherly and doormat but it avoids being seen as confrontational or “abrasive”.

      • A whole day late, but I needed to chime on the mention of servant leadership. This is exactly how I lead and I’ve found it works very well.

  3. I think NGDGTCO actually has it right.

    EXTREME OVER-GENERALIZATIONS AHEAD: Many young women I’ve worked with seem to sometimes let “being liked” become more important than being competent/etc. — they get focused to focused on being liked by their supervisors, even opposing counsel, at the expense of doing the job well. Women generally seem to be more attuned to/concerned with being liked than men, so it usually is less of an issue with junior men. Sometimes, that results in being overly sensitive (see K-Padi’s examples), fragile, and otherwise distracting for those working with/supervising the person in question.

    On the flip side, yeah, don’t be unpleasant for the sake of being unpleasant. Work as a team. Don’t stab other people in the back, lie, or be unnecessarily mean/rude/etc. Be generally easy to work with. Make your clients and co-workers not dread talking to you.

    … But I think most female executives/partners/etc. would much rather be thought of as talented/competent/etc. than pleasant/nice.

    • I think that’s huge, re: being “liked”. I had a wonderful first boss and when I was going out to meet with a city councilmember for the first time about a project we were working on, she purposefully said to me “it’s not about him liking you, it’s about him liking the project.” It’s been helpful to keep that in mind.

  4. I believe that to be successful, you must be both liked and respected. If you try too hard to be liked, you may never gain the respect you need, but if you believe that the way to gain respect is by being bitchy, no one will like you.

    At my previous job, there was a young director who seems to have internalized the message that she needed to be aggressive to be respected. Her boss thinks she’s great – the behavior has paid off there – but her team is plagued with turnover and absenteeism because she’s a nightmare to work with. At some point, her boss will realize that her personality is the reason the team underperforms.

    To be liked AND respected by management: deliver on your commitments, be a resource to others, and look out for your team.

    To be liked AND respected by your team: mentor people, share credit, and protect their time and priorities.

    • I totally agree with this. I would also add to NYNY’s list be consistent and level. People need to be comfortable delivering bad news and know that they can work with you to get through challenges.

  5. I think there is a huge difference between being kind and being nice. I am not nice, but I am a kind person. I am friendly, I ask people how they are doing/how their day is going, I enjoy getting the occasional drink with coworkers. Does that mean I am going to rollover or not voice my frustrations? Of course not. I am going to tell people when I am mad, I am going to raise my voice if I am not being heard but I am not going to go all rage maniac on them for no reason. I am not going to tell people to F off if they say good morning, but I will if they ask me to get them coffee when I am running the meeting. Just be a normal person basically.

  6. Anonymous :

    I think part of the problem I have with this discussion when it comes up is that it conflates “liked” and “thought of as pleasant and easy to work with.”

    For me to really like someone you have to know them, and I much prefer to carefully separate my personal and work life. I work with these people, they aren’t my friends. I’m not going to fill them in on my family drama, for example. So, no, I don’t think being “liked” is at all necessary.

    I do think it’s compulsory, though, to always (or as often as possible) be pleasant, friendly, and straightforward. People like to work with people who are pleasant to be around and who they know they can trust. I was a litigator for years before moving in-house, and there were plenty of opposing counsel who were complete jerks and impossible to work with before I made the move. Those people aren’t getting calls from me now. The ones who made an effort to be cordial even when the case was contentious though? Those people I might call on if I need someone with their skill set. Not because I “like” them — I don’t know them well enough for that — but rather because I know they would be pleasant to work with.

    • Jen S. 2.0 :

      I was coming here to say something very similar. When I think of someone who *needs* to be liked, I think of someone who is so busy making buddies with their colleagues / direct reports / bosses that they end up not being primarily known for their competence, even if it’s there. Being liked is fine and even a very good thing, but not at the expense of being known for your skills. You can be liked without becoming best friends with everyone in the office. If you are a basically pleasant person during the course of being a competent professional, most of the time being liked as it relates to your working relationships will take care of itself.

  7. I’ve seen quite a few types in my lifetime. The ones who stand out:

    The insecure-who-takes-it-out-on-her-reports: swings wildly between dictating every minute step you must run by her first to “you are smart enough, you don’t need me to tell you what to do every step of the way.” Ignore the second part and keep assuming you have to labor under the first part, and you’ll be okay.

    The micro-manager: anyone who ever says “I’m not a micro-manager.” Yes, you are. Recognizing that you have one for a supervisor is very helpful, because at least you know to expect it when it comes crashing down on you.

    I recognize some faults in myself: sometimes I get foot-in-mouth disease. I admit it up front. I’m not good at hiding irritation, but I always try to be fair. Answer the question at hand. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Don’t be afraid to say “No.” Do unto others. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

  8. I think telling people to “smile more” oversimplifies what real leadership involves. What about advice like, “come up with innovative solutions by launching several new pilot projects and monitoring their success” or “find ways to motivate your team through tailored professional development programs” or “develop systems that streamline processes and reduce errors.” As women, I feel like we are talked down to a lot, as if being warm and fuzzy with everyone is the most important part of our jobs. There is so much more that goes into management than being nice to people!

    I disagree that younger women revere being a b*tch. Most women know how to be nice — it’s been hammered into us since Kindergarten. Being nice isn’t the issue we need to worry about so much (unless you have an attitude problem). Maybe we need to make bigger goals for ourselves beyond how others perceive us.

  9. I work as an engineer/project manager so this issue is very near and dear to me.

    There’s nothing wrong with smiling while at work. The most important aspect to getting ahead in the work place in my opinion is to be competent at your job! And it’s important to remember that being competent and being liked/friendly are not mutually exclusive concepts.

    If you’re too much of a b*tch you run the risk of alienating people, and honestly no one wants to work with a jerk. Be it a male jerk or a female jerk. The best managers I have had have all been personable and likeable, including the men. Sure the men might get ahead, but I have seen a few male jerks in my field get fired: precisely because they are jerks, so I think things are changing.

    From personal experience I do not focus on being liked per se. I am personable and make sure I greet everyone when I see them. I smile/nod at people in the hallway. More importantly, I also make sure that I fight for what’s best for my team. For example if the client pulls dates forward and my team cannot meet the new dates, I work with the team to set a reasonable new date and push back on the client. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But my role is to interface between both groups and arrive at the best solution for both. I also make sure that when people ask anything of me I deliver the best quality product on time. The funny thing I have noticed though, is that by being generally friendly/approachable and being competent it has lead to be me being liked at work. It’s a case of doing the one and having the other one follows naturally.

  10. I think being LIKED, RESPECTED and COMPETENT at your job are all related. Its like a venn diagram. They are not mutually exclusive and to me, they go hand in hand. Competent people should know how to gain respect and “likes” at their office. If you can’t get people to like you or respect you as a person, you’re not very good at what you do (=not competent). If you’re a manager at an office, part of the competencies is to have good people skills. If you are a lawyer (which I am not, so I don’t know much about this), I’m assuming that being competent means (besides knowing the law and winning your case) is to get your clients to respect you and the judge and jury to “like” you enough to trust what you say and agree with you.

    • Diana Barry :

      But the problem is that studies have shown the more LIKED women are, the *less COMPETENT* they are perceived to be at their jobs. This is the issue, how much do you have to be LIKED means how much of a hit do you take on your COMPETENCE?

  11. This is a good topic! I am a small business owner with employees and I encounter this all the time. I feel that it is important to be friendly but to also hold firm to rules. When I worked in the corporate world, being “nice” was considered a sign of weakness which is clearly NOT the case. There are ways to nicely demand respect without it sounding like sarcasm. For business owners and managers, the key is hiring the right people. If you have the right team, there is no need to differentiate respect, it should already be there.

  12. A related issue: Awareness of body language is important for managers, because those under them will look at verbal and nonverbal signs to try to figure out what they’re thinking.

  13. Silkjamer :

    I agree with the Venn diagram theory. It starts with demonstrating competence, after all, that is why you were hired. Then you gain respect by your competence, the quality of your work and your interactions. And out of that, some people are going to like you or at least hold you in a high regard. Unless you walk around with a sour look on your face and a refusal to acknowledge your co-workers. Then nobody will care how competent you may be and they will just look for someone easier to work with.

  14. another enon :

    The best supervisor I ever had was friendly, firm, fair, and worked harder than anyone else. She told the truth without an attitude and treated everyone the same.

  15. How timely is this conversation? Very. Just this week, my office discussed the need to replace a female Director who is moving on. There was lots of discussion about this woman’s abilities but the comment that resonated with me afterward, was made by another female in the room, “She was a great Manager but…no one liked her,” to which our boss, a male, replied, “Who cares if her people liked her? She was a great Manager and I hope her replacement does as well.” This exchange made me think about how differently men and women still think. It appears to be a more or less “female” need to be liked at work and I must confess, I am not immune to wanting to be liked, at times, myself. But, the reality of being a woman with power, is that you will eventually need to make decisions that you nor your staff will like and this means, staff won’t like you. I have decided that for me personally, ” I want respect and…to be liked.” But, I wonder if it is possible to be both respected and liked when you are a woman in charge?

  16. I think people who take the all-agressive, all the time approach or feel like they need to be HBIC are overlooking something very important – the people who you subject to this behavior are just that – people. They are human beings who have feelings. The people who work for you and with you are going to remember how you have treated them in the past and that will color all their actions and how they work for you in the future. A person who you treated like crap in the past won’t be willing to go the extra mile for you in the future or may even sabotage you when the time comes. I see it all the time at my firm – not the sabotage, but the willingness to pass the buck when they could go the extra mile. I’m obviously not saying be a mush, but it’s the more flies with honey than vinegar axiom. To be a strong leader, I think you need to be both liked and respected. The best way to start to gain that from people is by showing an interest in them. Take a minute for a little small talk. Do they have a partner? Kids? Where are they from originally? What did they do over the weekend? I think this helps you be both liked and respected. People usually like to talk about themselves but you will also be respected because it shows you care and you don’t just view them as another tool you can use to get the job done. I also agree with some of the posts earlier about following through, being competent, being fair, etc. as ways you earn respect.

  17. Anonymous :

    I am the CEO of a medium sized business and I have learned a thing or two about leadership style over the course of 25 years. Being nice to others matters to everyone- clients, employees, customers, etc. Nobody wants to do business with or work for someone who is hard to deal with. It’s just human nature. Showing you are ‘nice’ as in easy to work with is vital to success. Being nice at work means you use good manners in every business interaction, you express genuine care and concern for others and you practice kindness by doing the little things such as getting coffee for the office periodically or telling your staff to go home a little early when things are slow. Being nice does not mean you are weak. Along with the basics of being nice, you also have to hold others accountable. As a leader, you have to set expectations and impose consequences when those expectations are not met. That does not mean you yell at people (ever)- it means you talk with them about the failure, and you help them correct when possible. If the person can’t correct, then you do what has to be done even if that means firing someone. Yes, I have fired quite a few people in my career but each one knew what I expected and they knew where they fell short. If you are a great leader, people know what to expect from you and they respect you for it. If you are nice without holding others accountable, you will come off as weak (and you will be). If on the other hand you are not nice you will come across as the cranky woman in the office who will step over others to move up the ladder. You might move up a few rungs, but you will lack the support of others and that will prevent you from being great.