How to Work for a Leader Who Needs to Be Liked

April 23, 2015
When my colleague Vince Molinaro wrote a great rant about the 10 worst types of leaders, I was inspired to respond with a series on how you and your team can survive under each one. This is the tenth and final post in that series.

Today’s terrible leader is one Vince calls the “please like me” leader. These are the leaders who “desperately want to be liked by everyone they work with.” They want to be best friends with their team members “in an eerie sort of way.” They avoid conflict or confrontation and make sure never to rock the boat.

If you work for a needy leader like this, you’re probably trying to justify to your friends how it could possibly be a bad thing to have a boss who wants to be your BFF (Best Friend Forever). Your neighbors roll their eyes each time you complain about having to endure another free lunch love-in with Mr. Happy Pants. But you know that the cloyingly saccharine act gets frustrating really quickly. Worse yet, you know that the issues between you and your teammates are never going to be resolved because the team leader isn’t willing to risk an argument for fear that it will look like he is taking sides.

What to do
Meet the Need

It’s probably best to admit that your boss has issues that you aren’t going to solve for her. So you’re probably stuck with this kind of behavior while she is your boss. Find small ways to show that you appreciate her as a human being. The leader who needs to be liked is going to have a crisis if you walk into the office and start working without saying good morning, so get in one good, genuine, full eye-contact “good morning.” Pick a couple of spots to say a warm “thank you” and provide feedback on positive things the boss does do. If you can find small glimmers of hope in her behavior, reinforce those like crazy. “In this morning’s meeting, when you let things get a little heated over the Acme project, it was great! I felt like we really got to the heart of some of the key issues, what could we do to encourage more discussions like that?”

Get What You Need

Hey, there are worse things that having a boss who wants you to like him. It might be the one chance you have to get some of the development you’ve been looking for. To be clear, you’re not going to get that development from your boss, because honest, candid feedback is well beyond his comfort level. But if there’s a course you want to take or a program you want to be nominated for, make the ask. “I’m really grateful for your support. There’s one thing you could do for me that would really mean a lot. I’ve been reading up on our high potential program and I’d like you to nominate me for it.” Don’t feel sheepish about using the opportunity presented by a boss who wants to be liked to do things that are good for your career. But don’t make the mistake of abusing the situation by asking for Friday afternoon’s off!

Learn to Have Happy Conflict

Yup, that sounds ridiculous, I know. In my experience, harmony-seeking team leaders have a very low tolerance for conflict. That can be very dangerous for your business because conflict and tension are the source of new ideas, optimized plans, and good risk mitigation. But if every time you wade into something a little contentious, your boss says “let’s take that offline,” then you’re never going to get a chance to have a good argument. The alternative is to learn how to have happy conflict: debates, discussions, tussles where the language is positive and the tone is pleasant. Try some of the techniques for happy conflict in this HBR.org post I wrote.

Having survived any of the other 9 of Vince Molinaro’s 10 worst leaders, you might feel lucky to have a boss who just wants to be liked. Although the needy leader isn’t quite as hard on you, they can be very hard on the business. Don’t shut your needy leader down (they’ll just follow you around like you little sister used to) but do be clever about ways to protect the business and to get your needs met. If you do it with a big smile on your face, you’ll greatly increase your chances of success.

Previous Article
How Self-Aware Are You?
How Self-Aware Are You?

One of the most critical things you can do to contribute to a healthy, happy, and productive team is to bec...

Next Article
My boss doesn’t like me
My boss doesn’t like me

Here’s a story I was told recently. You might have experienced...