It’s Better To Be Liked

…it is much safer to be feared than loved because …love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

Niccolo Machiavelli (Author of The Prince and probably a terrible manager of people)

I’m unaware of Niccolo Machiavelli ever trying to lead a team while building a software product, but I’m guessing if he ever tried, he was terrible. Fear breeds loathing, and if you’re loathed, you are not liked. Software engineering teams don’t need to love one another and their leaders, but they absolutely have to like them. And as a leader of a software engineering organization, it’s not just unpleasant for your team to fear you or dislike you. Fear and loathing in software engineering generates a massive productivity opportunity cost.

First, an axiom: Software Engineers aren’t paid to code. They’re paid to think. And to paint with a very broad brush, most of the sort of people who become software engineers tend to think all the time. Next, a definition of what it means to be liked: In a working team, to be liked is to be thought of much like a good neighbor. You trust them. They’re pleasant enough. You may be best friends, but that’s not necessary. You know they’ll return your weed whacker if they borrow it. Most importantly, likable people don’t occupy your mind in a negative way.

Members of teams who occupy the minds of engineers in a negative way are productivity killers. When a team member creates an environment where engineers are thinking about them or their relationship rather than thinking about a technical or business problem, the team as a whole suffers. And that’s a real cost to an engineering team. Engineering members don’t need to spend every waking hour thinking about “work,” but should their mind wander during some personal time, it’s much more beneficial to everyone that it wanders into something technical rather than something interpersonal.

Not only will unlikable people injure productivity for a software engineering team, but they’ll even kill off the teams. Another axiom: “People don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses.” That’s not quite right. People will quit a job because of a bad manager, but they’ll quit a job because the job is bad too. And unlikable people make for bad jobs. So you get reduced productivity by engineering teams while they’re still working for you, and then you get 0 productivity as the engineering team quits on you. All because of unlikable people.

It’s better to be liked. As a manager, it’s vital that your people “like” you, at least in the way I defined earlier. Also as a manger, it’s vital that you have zero tolerance for unlikable people in your organization, whether they report to you or not. Unlikable people are a malignant form of productivity blocker. Be likable yourself, hire and retain likable people, and lead the way towards likability in your organization.