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Business Officer Magazine

All You Need Is Like

Tim Sanders wants to transform your workplace by showing that nice people finish first. He briefs Business Officer on the likeability theories that he’ll present at the Hawaii conference.

By Karla Taylor

“Life is a popularity contest—especially on campus,” says Tim Sanders, former leadership coach and now a business consultant at Yahoo. The author of The Likeability Factor (Crown, 2005) continues: “The fact is, people will only listen to and follow leaders they like. If you feel embattled and wonder if it’s your fault, it probably is. Too many people rate a 3 or 4 in the likeability realm.”

Wait a minute, you say. You have a hard mission to fulfill. Too often it includes cutting budgets, vetoing requests for equipment and staff your campus can’t afford, and sometimes even overseeing layoffs. These aren’t jobs for Mr. or Ms. Popularity—are they?

Yes, Sanders says. “Highly likeable leaders are emotionally smart people. They’re better solution-implementers. If you don’t figure out a way to help people feel good about what they have to do, you’ll fail at saving money.” There are two reasons for this:

  • People won’t listen when you tell them what needs to be done and why. “Mountains of research suggest that when a leader is not likeable, staff shrink the personal bandwidth they give you to take in information” and simply shut out the message.
  • Even when they do hear you, people won’t believe you.  For example, courtroom research suggests that judges and juries distrust what unlikeable witnesses say.  Coworkers buy in logically only after they’ve first bought in emotionally.

Saying “No”— Nicely

Even someone who works in what Sanders calls “The Land of No” can maintain likeability. “You don’t have to make people feel bad [when you] tell them no, or even [when you] criticize their performance,” he says. “If I have to come tell you that your proposal for 5 new headcounts and 15 new computers is denied—but I do it in a way that proves I’m willing to hear you and respect your feelings—research indicates that you will be OK with me.”

The key in such situations: Avoid easy fixes that might leave a warm glow but will ultimately backfire.

First of all, tell the truth and nothing but. As Sanders sees it, we live in a culture in which people’s greatest psychological need is to know what’s real and what’s not. You only hurt yourself when, in a misguided attempt to be likeable, you tell staffers what you think they want to hear. “We play politics—especially on campus—because it’s difficult to say something such as, ‘We’re on the brink of being in trouble financially.’ But if you make it understood that you’re not heartless, people will pull up their socks and work with you.”

Tim Sanders will address the closing plenary session on Tuesday, July 11, from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.

In addition, don’t make promises you can’t keep. Too many bosses make pledges they know are misleading in a futile attempt to soften the blow of saying no. But the broken promise only makes people feel betrayed and bitter. If you must soften a refusal with a promise, keep your word and report back truthfully.

“Long after people forget what you did, they’re going to remember how you made them feel,” Sanders says. “In your job, if you’re emotionally smart enough to respect others and control your own emotions, you can figure out a middle ground where you can tell it like it is and be respected.”

Want to check out your “likeability factor”? Visit

KARLA TAYLOR, Bethesda, Maryland, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.