Podcast: Avoiding the Likability Trap at Work
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Leadership Nov 6, 2023

Podcast: Avoiding the Likability Trap at Work

Plus: insecure employees and a flagging culture. On this episode of The Insightful Leader’s “Ask Insight,” more from our conversation with Professor Harry Kraemer.

Based on insights from

Harry M. Kraemer

Listening: Avoiding the Likeability Trap at Work
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You’ve just handed down a new directive, and your team is grumbling about it. Should that matter to you?

If it’s likability you’re worried about, Kellogg Professor Harry Kraemer says you have it all wrong.

“If you focus on being liked, the chance of being respected, I actually think, is pretty low,” Kraemer says.

Kraemer discussed this rationale—and other sticky leadership questions—with Ask Insight.

Podcast Transcript

Laura PAVIN: You’re listening to Kellogg Insight. I’m Laura Pavin.

We’re back with our latest installment of Ask Insight—the segment where The Insightful Leader brings pressing business questions to a professor, and they answer them.

This week, we continue our conversation with Harry Kraemer, a clinical professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. He’s an executive partner with the Chicago private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners, and he’s the former chairman and CEO of the global healthcare company Baxter International.

In this discussion, Kraemer explains: How should you handle an employee who requires a ton of praise? Can you rebuild a company culture that your predecessor tore down? And how do you handle disgruntled employees, when the one they’re disgruntled with is you? Let’s dive in!

PAVIN: Okay, so some people look for praise to know that they’re doing a good job, but there are people who do this kind of chronically. They ask for constant reassurance, which can end up becoming kind of a nuisance for their managers because it takes them away from focusing on more-important tasks. So if you’re a leader that’s managing this type of employee, how do you tackle that?

Harry KRAEMER: Yeah. And so this becomes a very big part of the whole question of, as a leader, assuming you can lead yourself, assuming you’ve got—you’re self-aware—your next responsibility, obviously now, is to develop each person to their full potential. Now, different people have levels of different potential, but I’m supposed to help you do that. Now, when I sit down with you, “okay, before we get started,” I’m going to make it really clear to say, “you know what? In order for me to help you develop, I’m going to be providing you feedback. Now, here’s what the process is going to be like; here’s how often we’re going to do this; here’s the rules of engagement of how this is going to happen; and I’ll be very respectful of one another. So let’s try that out. Let’s see how that works.” And again, by setting the expectation for you to know, “Harry cares about me. Harry’s going to help me reach my full potential. He’s going to let me know what’s going well and what isn’t going well.” And we do that in a formula because I’m going to explain, we’ve got to get a lot of other things done, but it’s laid out in a way that people understand the expectation, and I’m going to help you be the best you can possibly be.

PAVIN: So it sounds like you’re saying: Have a meeting with them to discuss this maybe before it becomes out of hand or after. Should you also ask probing questions to figure out if there’s a deeper reason why they need constant reassurance? Like, oh, they had a bad previous experience with an employer who said they were doing a good job, and then their performance review wasn’t like a 10. And their understanding was like, “well, I thought if I wasn’t excelling that you would let me know, and now I’m seeing that I’m not getting a perfect 10 in my performance review.” Should you be kind of trying to get at some sort of deeper reason why they’re asking for constant reassurance?

KRAEMER: Sure. And I think part of that process I think comes down to—as the leader, and you’re somebody who works for me—explaining what this process is going to look like. So the reality is, I’m going to let you know feedback is the way I’m going to help you reach your full potential. And by the way, this “getting to your full potential”? It’s a journey. We never get there. We always get better. And I’ve seen people, “well, wait a minute, I thought I was doing a good job. Am I a 10?” My view is none of us are a 10 because it’s a journey. It isn’t a destination. We can always get better. So I’m going to be giving you pointers as to what you can do to progress, but letting you know, here’s what’s going well, here’s what isn’t going well, here’s some things that you can work on.

Now, if it looks like you need a lot of reassurance—and this happens—then I’m going to discuss one of the key principles of my leadership model, which is self-confidence. Maybe you don’t have a lot of self-confidence. Well, let’s talk about that. You’re a good person, you’re progressing every day. We can get better. So let’s talk about why don’t you have. Is there something I can do to help you with that? And this whole concept of people realizing it is a journey: “Here’s what I do. Well, here’s what I could get a lot better on.”

PAVIN: So let’s say you’ve been called in to manage a company that’s been led by some pretty inadequate leaders. They’ve left it a mess, and employees are accustomed to a new leader coming in with grand plans and failing. How do you inspire confidence in a place that’s become accustomed to discontent, where anything that a new leader comes in and does is met with resistance?

KRAEMER: Yeah. If you think about it in a problem situation like that, what often happens is you hear this expression, “hey, let’s keep the lights down low. There’s an elephant in the room here, but we don’t know how to deal with it, and we’ll kind of figure out how to deal with it in the dark.” And one of the things I always tell the Kellogg students, and I tell executives when I’m giving presentations, I look at it as … there’s an issue. Let’s go down to Wrigley Field; let’s turn the floodlights on; let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room; and let’s openly talk about it. So let’s role play this thing: I’m the new leader. I come in and it’s been a disaster. And it’s like, uh oh, Kramer’s coming in. There’s been three other things, whatever. So what do I do? I turn the floodlight on, I talk about the elephant in the room, and I’m literally going to be open with the whole group to say, “let’s talk about reality.”

Reality is, the last three people that were here, it sounds like it was a disaster. It sounds like there’s issues of trust. It sounds like people aren’t listening. So here’s the deal. I grab my pad, I grab my paper. What I’d really like to do? I’d really like to do the right thing. “I realize what you folks have been through. I realize the mess that this is. And by the way, I’d like to help you and I’d like to help be part of the solution with you. So guess what? Folks are pretty close to a lot of things that have been a disaster. I got my pencil. What do you think needs to change? If you were me coming into this role, what are you now doing? What should we do less of? What are we doing now? What should we eliminate? What are things we’re doing now that we should do more of? And what are we not doing now that we should start doing? And I’m going to start talking to all of you as a group. I’ll talk to you individually. I’ll take all of this in, and then I’ll make some decisions based on all the input. And by the way, just so you understand who you’re dealing with here, I very, very much am focused on trying to do the right thing. I don’t need to be right. So if I suggest something and you think something else makes more sense, tell me why you don’t think it makes sense. Tell me what you think does make sense. And I’ll take that into account, alright? But after I listen to everybody and after I understand all these pieces, then I’m going to start to make decisions. And again, some of it you’ll like, some of it you won’t like, and if it’s different than what you’re recommending, as I said, you’re not going to always get your way, but you’ll always be respected, and I’ll always let you know why I’m doing something different than what you recommended.”

PAVIN: Okay, so it sounds like: Get employee feedback and then make sure that you’re communicating with them on why you’re making decisions a certain way, especially if it’s different than what they thought was the best thing.

KRAEMER: Perfect.

PAVIN: Okay. You’ve just handed down a tough protocol that your team has to follow. You need them to communicate on slack or email more. Your team doesn’t like it and they’re venting about it behind your back. Should this bother you? Is this just kind of par for the course of being a leader? And how do you grapple with not being liked, I suppose?

KRAEMER: Oh, boy. You get me to think about a couple of things that we should definitely talk about. One is that sometimes students have said to me, we have a little bit of fun with it, they’ll say, “Harry, you must’ve been a great guy to work for.” I said, “really?” “Yeah, you listen. You take all the comments that have come in. You’re willing to change your mind. You really, truly care about the people. You must’ve been a great guy to work for.” And I was saying to this one young woman the other day, I said, “well, not really, because that’s only the first half.” And she said, “well, what’s the second half?” I said, “well, [that’s] because I took the time to listen, because I was willing to change my mind, because I seek to understand before I’m understood and I’m taking notes or whatever. And I’ve been really respectful of all of you. And by the way, when I make a decision that may be different than you recommended, I’ll let you know why I’m doing it.” Now, what do I require for all of that? “Well, what I require for that, Mary, is now the decision is getting made. So you know what, Mary? Get on the bus. And in fact, Mary, if you say, ‘well, I’m not so sure,’ well, Mary, respectfully, I’m not so sure you’re on the team anymore.” Okay, so guess what? People—whoa, whoa, whoa! Well, guess what? We’ve only got a certain amount of time. I’m investing a lot of time to make sure I’ve got all your input. But now we’ve got to go. We’ve got to make things happen. We’re in a competitive world. That’s the decision that’s already been made. And so that ability to make it very, very clear, I solicit information.

I want to know what you think, but now I’ve got to … we’ve got to make a decision. Now, the other thing you said, which I love, is, let’s be honest, what’s one of the problems that a lot of leaders have? I believe the problem they have is they’re very, very focused on being liked. If you focus on being liked, the chance of being respected, I actually think, is pretty low. If I focus on being respected, I let you know I care a lot about you. This is something we need to work on. This is an issue, and I really focus on being respected, you could actually be liked.

PAVIN: Was that a hard thing for you to learn as you were kind of ascending to leadership roles?

KRAEMER: Yeah. Yes. I mean, when I first started out, of course I had the benefit of going to Kellogg. And I would say that prior to Kellogg, I really wanted people to like me. And then I realized being liked is not the entry point, but I think it could be the conclusion. If I’m really being, sort of setting expectations, being tough in a nice way, then I’ve got a reasonable chance of being liked.


PAVIN: That does it for Ask Insight with special guest Harry Kraemer. We hope you found it insightful. By the way, if you have a leadership question you want answered, you can email us at insight@kellogg.northwestern.edu.

The Insightful Leader is produced by me, Laura Pavin, Jessica Love, Susie Allen, Fred Schmalz, Maja Kos, and Blake Goble. If you want even more The Insightful Leader episodes, you can find us on iTunes, Spotify, or our website: insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu.


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Clinical Professor of Management & Organizations

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