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.

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Go to the edge and jump, you never know you just might fly…

T.S Eliot said: Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

It’s a funny thing, this risk business. You’re either into it or you aren’t, no fence sitting where risk is concerned. It makes you either grin ridiculously or panic spectacularly. I’m the grinning type and so are hundreds of others I know. They’re all around us these risk-takers. Know anyone who has left a relationship, started a new business, changed jobs, moved house, got married, had kids…..they all took risks. We don’t always see ourselves as risk takers – and let’s be honest, we all know people in our lives who have never risked. Some stay in the job they hate, the marriage that darkens their soul, the house that makes them ill or unhappy. I’ve had a bit of risk in my life and I really encourage it, even though it may be one of the most difficult things you will ever do! I was one of the early adopters if you like a risk taker before my time. As a kid, I was the one always getting into trouble, having accidents, being found out….some things never change.

What is it that makes some of us take risks and others’ not? Is it confidence and belief in ourselves? Is it out of necessity? Is it learned – did our parents risk? Or, do we risk new things in spite of what we learned growing up? I think it must be a combination of all them – or some of them at different times.

I had parents who took risks. Sometimes they turned out and sometimes they didn’t. We moved a bit as kids, some moves bigger than others. Always those moves meant new schools where we adjusted to life and made new friends. I know we weren’t always happy about it, but those choices were never our decisions to make, so we went along with it, coached and supported by strong parents, committed to their decisions. I remember being very happy to move to the Gold Coast – beach, sand, sun etc – but not necessarily all that happy to leave 5 years later! Did my parent’s cautious risk taking affect me? Yes, absolutely, what great role models! They decided to move because of job prospects, better education for my brother, sister and I and to be closer to (or further away!) from family. My Dad took the biggest and bravest risk of his life, changing profession as an older guy – from construction to this new-fangled computer business. What a tough few months for my family, and what a proud daughter I am to think back on that now he isn’t here.

I risked so much when I chose the Unhusband. Friends and family were surprised when my marriage fractured (or was smashed with a hammer as one of my friends likes to put it!). So was I by the way – but that’s another story. The phone call and message that stuck in my mind was from a gorgeous friend who told me how brave I was! I never thought I was brave, I just did what I felt was the “right” thing to do – for my soul to sing. Brave wasn’t something I set out to be – and it certainly wasn’t top of my feelings list.

You do become brave, you do grow, you do feel like you are much better than you ever thought you were, because you took a risk.

Things don’t always turn out, I’m not Pollyanna (she was blonde and American…) Sometimes life is tough and sometimes it sucks like a Hoover. It’s about making those new circumstances work for you. Accepting the status quo, just for now, until things can be better. The Unhusband and I took the biggest risk together when we moved from Australia to the UK. Sheltered little naïve things, not quite entertaining the impact of this little thing called the GFC. Wow – what a shock that was. It took a long few months to get work for Unhusband, but thankfully he is an uber-god in the geek world and London needed his skills. I wasn’t in such high demand. As an HR professional, falling into an enormous pool of HR professionals who had been made redundant, I wasn’t needed so much! And they all had UK employment law experience, which I didn’t have. So, no-one was quite falling over themselves to employ me I can assure you. I would be lying if I said it didn’t affect me. I had come from a high powered job, complete with a post-graduate degree to being unemployed for the first time in my life. (Although I never saw myself as that, maybe it helped.)

So I did what any woman in her early forties would do. I panicked. Then I re-invented myself. I can assure you the story was not as wonderfully romantic as it sounds, but I got through. I started my own business walking customers through the mire that was social media (it was early days). I was fascinated with social media in the HR arena (still am) and thought I could help some people out. I took a massive risk. I also had amazing people supporting me. Would I have done it otherwise? Probably – I would have had to!

Is it the best thing I ever did? In many ways yes. There was an awful lot of pain – not the least financially! But on the back of that came a new-found confidence, pride in myself and an ability to appreciate that I was a risk-taker; that I would put myself on the line to make something new work. In a lot of ways there was choice. I could have chosen to remain defeated. I honestly did try being the un-housewife for about 2 weeks. Unhusband came home one day to find me quite literally bored rigid, frozen on the terrace.

With risk there comes change  and if you don’t like change, this risk thing is going to be a bit of a malarkey!

I have watched people come in and out of my life, some I really care for who don’t have enough personal power to take a risk that will change their lives forever. It makes me sad and I wish I could bottle my risk taking and give it to them. As my Mum says, it would be a boring old place if we were all the same, but don’t you just wish you could gift the things you know you’re good at?

I have other people in my life who have taken risks that I admire. Three of whom stand out right now. Interestingly, they are all women (this is not a gender assessment, simply a comment). I admire them for their courage, for their determination and for their belief that whatever they are doing now, there has to be something else better. My sister is one of my current risk-heroines. She chose to be alone with her 3 amazing children rather than be in a marriage that was failing to live up to all she had created. All my family at one time or another have taken risks that I admire them for. An Adelaide friend is another. She is about to launch her own business. She has two young boys who are far more important to her than her next career move and this enables her to focus more on the life bit of that balancing thing. Her values are so strong; she knows she can take her unique style of professionalism and turn it into something people want. Brave women.

The last one is my cousin. She had risk thrust upon her. Well, actually she had change thrust upon her when the love of her life, and father of their gorgeous boy Will, died suddenly with cancer at 38. So there’s a risk no-one planned for. She is an amazing woman. Brave and strong and tough – and emotional and fragile and doubtful. But they took a bigger risk too. Before he died, her husband started his own business. She is keeping it going. It is so far out of her field it’s almost funny! Incredible. Would I have the courage to do that – who knows? I have the blessing at this time to not have to find out like she did. These women all have something in common. They are mothers. How fortunate are the kids they have, to be shown these brave role models. I don’t have kids, I don’t think that affects whether you are a risk taker or not, but I do think they have much more to lose than me!

Bottom line: At the risk of alienating half the world, I like the risk-takers. I respect them. That’s not to say I won’t be friends with you if you aren’t one, but I think there is something fundamentally different about people who take risk. We believe in ourselves, we are optimistic, we are prepared for either the worst or the best of times, we plan ahead and we adapt.

What is the worst thing that could possibly happen? Can you manage it? Short of death, I bet you could!

My favourite quote must be this from Bertrand Russell. “Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps most fatal to true happiness”.