Do you have to be liked at work?

As a manager writing this and possibly as managers reading this, your answer to this question may be no. As a young person or graduate in their first role, the answer may just be the opposite. As for people who need to be needed, or need to be liked, I think we can guess what they would opt for.

But is it necessary to be liked at work? I think maybe only sociopaths and psychopaths are comfortable not being liked. That probably puts me closer to that end of the spectrum than I prefer.

Could it be I say that, because no-one likes me? (I don’t think that is the case, but you never can be sure can you?). Traditionally, HR people don’t fall into the category of people to like at work. We seem to be the department that people are scared of. The ones who wave the rule book, the ones who keep everyone in place.  (If anyone can tell me how we break that cycle, I’d be eternally grateful.)

I much prefer to be respected at work than liked. Liked is something I save for my friends and hopefully my family. Working in HR has taught me there will always be times when we need to appear as the enforcers of rules. Mostly that is because we are (or should be) about the needs of the business. The needs of the business dictate that you must perform well at what you do and must not perpetuate bad behaviour. That’s why they call it work. I would rather be known and respected as someone who has the guts to make a difficult decision or have a difficult conversation, than someone who has no credibility because they find these situations too difficult. I have been both intensely disliked and extremely well respected for the same decision. I have been respected by people who don’t like me – and I choose the respect every time.

I did a straw poll before writing this post asking the question of being liked at work and a few people mentioned that being liked can make your way in the office smoother. It is much easier when people co-operate with you because they like you. It means you are more likely to get a quick response or a little favour that makes your job easier or your day more pleasant. But why should this rely on being liked?

Are we, as adults, not evolved enough to make this happen regardless of whether we like someone or not? I worked for over 3 years for a man I disliked intensely. I didn’t respect him, but I respected the position he held; the one that managed me. Ultimately that meant, I reported to him and I did what he asked of me. Again, another definition of work. I’m not sure whether he liked me or not, I dare say he didn’t, as I challenged him in many ways – but we managed to get our respective jobs done in a way that complemented what we wanted to achieve in the business.

I do admit that some of the best relationships in my life have come out of meeting people I have worked with, including my wonderful un-marriage. Some friendships I have which have passed the test of time are with people I once worked with.  Most of those friends were colleagues, some worked for me and one was my boss.

I have a rule not to be friends with anyone I manage directly at work. Why? Trust me, it’s not because I am mean and nasty…. (There is a theme developing though). It is that I learned that it is much harder to manage someone you are friends with than someone you don’t know that well personally. In a work environment, we need objectivity. Making friends with and liking people who report to you, makes all of that subjective. When it comes to managing the poor performance of a friend, there is no greater ground fraught with large unexploded landmines. Not only will the business relationship be put under pressure, the friendship probably won’t last.

By the same token, managing people who are your friends or people you do like, may create an environment of complacency. If you are liked by your boss, do you really need to try that hard?

Like most people, I have worked in all kinds of organisations, some where the people are mostly friendly and some where the word friendly has never been uttered. The friendly workplaces can quite easily translate into situations that reflect family dynamics. People learn about basic concepts of fairness, equity and resource allocation in their families, and these are crucial issues in the workplace. These basic concepts in families may be very different from the ones we find ourselves in at work. Familiarity in a workplace can cause as many conflicts as family situations do.

It takes a mature person to see past the likes and dislikes of our managers or our teams and just see the forest through the trees. If we can compartmentalise the relationships in the office and keep focused on the outcomes we will be measured on, maybe we will have more time and energy to pursue relationships that are lasting outside of the work environment.

Conflict….it’s just a difference of opinion. Really.

I grew up with a family who love a great debate. There was always some kind of debate going on in our house that we were encouraged to stick our oar into. My Dad would drop little one liners about things to see what our reaction was. He almost always got a rise out of me!

I have never been one to shy away from conflict. In fact growing up in my family it was expected. I have very direct extroverted parents who were always making it clear, usually loudly, how they felt about a certain …..anything. I am sure the phrase argument for arguments sake was invented by my parents, although their own personal arguments were few, they never hid them from us believing that we would learn to deal with that as we would any other experience.

In our house, conflict was one of those things we just did really well. We still do.

One of my earliest memories is of my mother making a very pointed comment to a friend of my father’s. Dad came in late one night after work, a little drunk and with this friend in tow. The poor guy in question happened to have a pencil thin moustache. My mother was not a fan. So, she told him in a very pointed way that “she hates men with moustaches”. True story.

She felt it was important for him to know as the cause of my father’s overt “friendliness” just how she felt. After she made her point, he offered to leave, but in my true family style, he was welcomed, warmly, with laughter, food and made feel like a member of the family. One of the best lessons I ever learned from my mother was to say your piece and move on! She always moved on quite quickly, something we couldn’t understand as kids, because we never got to hold a grudge!

I was probably about seven at the time and remember it vividly. Not least because my mortified father liked to drag that story out every opportunity he got! In the later years of course it was a great joke, but I am more than sure he felt the sting of it then. Of course my mother still doesn’t think she did anything wrong, he deserved it!

Maybe she didn’t, and maybe he did. Maybe he was just one of those poor souls who is too sensitive (as my family like to think!). I am sure it is about sensitivity and as I get older, I also know that we need to apply some filters. As I tell my nieces and nephews, just because it is in your head doesn’t mean it has to come out of your mouth. Mum was a bit of a slow learner at times.

As they say, it is all in the delivery.

I am brutally aware that my way of dealing with conflict is unique, which has tended to make communication difficult at times. I am also aware that when I am not on my game, it is the one thing that deserts me. When I am not confident, or I am tired from too much struggle, I have chosen not to challenge when I should have. I know then I am not being my authentic self.

I think that poor old conflict gets a bit of a rough deal. Conflict doesn’t always have to be bad and I am quite serious when I say that I truly believe it is just a difference of opinion.

The conflict part comes from emotion, judgement, defensiveness and self-righteousness.

Thankfully life is all about growing and learning. I used to think there was something wrong with someone else if they didn’t like what I said, I truly didn’t think it reflected on me at all. Sounds pretty horrid – and I would agree. I was not always the evolved soul who writes now (she says smirking into her wine…).

So why am I revealing all this horrid stuff about myself, and why would you care (other than to use me as an example in your psychotherapy classes!)? Because the way we deal with conflict is one of those lessons we inherit from our family. It shapes who we are, what we believe, the way we form relationships and even the way we do business. I wrote recently about the importance of relationships in business. The way we deal with conflict affects honesty and trust in all of our relationships.

One of the best lessons we can teach our children is that conflict doesn’t have to be difficult. It also doesn’t have to be avoided. If we can make it clear that listening to a difference of opinion creates an open mind and greater respect for people and their differences, we can encourage them to debunk the myth too.

What happens to you when you disagree with your boss – what do you do? More poignantly, what do you say? Are you encouraged to say anything? Saying nothing implies that you agree, or even worse, support their ideas. Some of the most important coaching and mentoring I have done is on how to handle this kind of conflict – or this difference of opinion. It is called managing up. It is important certainly to not respond in anger, but to collect your thoughts calmly and then have a conversation.

We all know people who have different beliefs to us on important issues. My particular favourites are things like racism, sexism and homophobia. It is always far easier to agree with them isn’t it? I mean who wants to be the one who publicly disapproves rather than going along with the joke, or the thought or the intent. Some would argue that we could stop racism, sexism and homophobia right there, if we only all just learned to say: “Oh, really, how interesting, I don’t necessarily see it like that”. Then just engage in conversation without being self righteous, without emotion, without judgement and without being defensive. (Thanks go to the wonderful Susan De Campo who taught me this insight and saved my sanity just recently!)

I do believe if we start to de-mystify this whole topic and treat conflict like a difference of opinion, problems would be resolved, issues would cease to be and we would all feel stronger and more confident rather than walking away disheartened wishing we had the courage to say what we thought.

I have had many friends and family on Facebook vehemently disagree with the comments I have put up there, or pictures I have taken – and I welcome it, openly! I want to know what people think, I want to incite discussion and debate. In a world where it sometimes feels like we are free to write what we like, that isn’t always the case. I recently read two very different blogs on the value of SEO and it appeared that there were more comments on the blog in support of the argument than not. One particular blog was almost nasty in content and was a little vitriolic. I would have thought that would create some fairly sharp responses. There were a few on there, but not many. Very few people actually wrote that they disagreed with the content. Are we continuing this move away from conflict in these forums too? All this user generated content surely will incite some great debate and discussion, but I am not really seeing it, I wonder why?

I so often hear “I like to keep the peace” and my all time favourite, “I don’t want to rock the boat”. Well, as the un-husband says: Real boats rock.

The key to learning how to deal with conflict is practice. Practice using the phrase, “I don’t necessarily see it like that”. Practice it without emotion, without judgement, without being defensive and without being self-righteous. It is quite amazing what happens when you re-frame it.

After all, it is only a matter of opinion.