Can You Be Successful If You Need to Be Liked?

Last Updated Apr 8, 2011 12:46 PM EDT

Ruthless, take-no-prisoners, never-look-back businesspeople are an archetype straight out of central casting. The media love to write about them. Investors love to fund them. Competitors love to... well, maybe competitors don't love them.

Most of us are not like that. Nature, nurture, whatever: Most of us want to be liked. Most of us need to be liked. Besides, a healthy concern for how others perceive us is a good quality to possess if only because people who want to be liked tend to be more likable. Likable is a good thing.

But sometimes our need to be liked can negatively impact how we do business.

See if you recognize yourself:

  • A customer calls with a complaint: Your anxiety levels spike, your voice goes up an octave, and the more upset the customer the more you do to solve the problem, even past the point of justification. You rationalize to yourself: "Customer satisfaction is the key to my business, plus I can't afford poor word of mouth. And besides, no price is too high to pay to resolve customer complaints..."
  • A customer asks for a discount: You want to make the sale but you also crave the feeling of validation a sale brings, so you concede more than you should. Your rationalize to yourself: "If I hadn't cut the price I might have lost the sale, and after all, some revenue is better than no revenue..."
  • An employee is late -- again. You're uncomfortable with confrontation, plus a different employee was late yesterday and you let that go, so you settle for throwing a few disapproving glances his way. You rationalize to yourself: "Well, he does a pretty good job most of the time, I spent a lot of time training him, and shoot, no customers were waiting so does it really matter that much if he was late again...?"
Any of those sound like you? If so, there's hope: While you can't change your personality, you can change your behaviors.

Instead of rationalizing or beating yourself up, be proactive. Eliminate as much judgment as possible from judgment calls you struggle with. The more prepared you are to handle a situation where you instinctively compromise or give in, the easier it is to be firm, professional, and even nice.

Here are a few situations you could prepare for:

  • Handling complaints. An upset customer is tough for anyone to deal with, especially a person who wants to be liked. Take a step back: You know your products and services inside out. List all the things that could go wrong, the more possibilities the better. Then decide what you will do in each situation: Repair, replace, rework, refund, discount, discount on future purchases, etc. You won't hem, you won't haw, and you won't give away the store because your stress levels spiked and all you could focus on was how to escape a horrible situation. Rehearse what you will say and do. If the customer resists a resolution and keeps asking for more, at some point you may have to say, "I'm sorry, but our policy is to... we simply cannot do any more than that." You can fall back on policy limits in good conscience when you actually have policies.
    Bonus benefit: For each item on your potential problem list, identify ways to eliminate the root causes of those problems. You'll improve operations and also deal with less complaints.
  • Negotiating prices. Haggling over price can be especially tough for service providers. The more you need to be liked the more you're likely to cut your prices. Your self esteem is at risk and losing a contract feels like a personal rejection and not just a business setback. Make it easier on yourself. Create a detailed price list, then think about potential negotiation strategies. Don't just say, "I'm willing to cut 10%." Create discounts based on volume. Determine ways to reduce service levels to meet a lower price. The more options you create, the more likely your negotiations will stay more objective and less personal.
    Bonus benefit: Developing a comprehensive price list, including discounting and negotiation tactics, is a great way to refine pricing strategies. How low can you go and still make a profit? Or, would different pricing strategies make the purchase decision easier for customers?
  • Managing employees. Every employee is different, so great leaders apply judgment and discretion, right? True -- but making too many ad hoc decisions can also destroy a work team. Sometimes policies are your best friends, especially in objective areas like attendance, quality, and performance to standards. Determine your expectations, codify your expectations, share your expectations, and manage by those expectations. While it will never be enjoyable, this is fairly easy to say: "As you know our policy is that no employees are allowed to be absent more than six times in a rolling twelve-month period. Yesterday was your seventh absence, so I have to put you on a disciplinary program..." Think about situations that can be "by the book," and write and follow the book. Then use judgment where judgment makes sense.
    Bonus benefit: New employee orientation will be easier, managing employees will be easier, and overall performance may go up: Employees who understand expectations usually try to exceed expectations.
  • Saying "no." Refusing a request from colleagues, friends, and family is really hard. Rarely will saying "no" go as badly as you fear, though. Most people will understand (and if they don't, should you care too much?) Depending on the situation, try: "I'm sorry, but I just don't have the time," or, "That's not something I do well; here's someone you might call..." or, "I'm sorry, but we're just not in that market. But I appreciate you thinking of us."
    Bonus benefit: You'll actually get your own work done for a change.
The best way to balance your need to be liked with your need to succeed is to know what you plan to do before you are faced with stressful or confrontational situations. Then you can stay objective, make better decisions, and greatly reduce your stress and regret levels.

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Photo courtesy flickr user digital_image_fan, CC 2.0
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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.