#leadership is not about being liked

Part of the job of leaders is to provide an appropriate level of effort and challenge for our followers, in order to engage them. On the surface this seems to make sense. Increased engagement should lead to increased learning, as well as improved evaluations by followers of a leader’s effectiveness.

Maybe not. A recent review of research on teaching effectiveness shows that learning and perceived teaching effectiveness are not related to each other. Yes, you read it right. The research is pretty persuasive. It turns out that what we think we have learned, and what we actually have learned are different. And what we think is good teaching is actually not related to what we actually know.

One of the factors that cause this disconnect between actual learning and perceived quality of teaching is related to what Dennis Clayson calls the Paradox of Rigor. Rigor, defined as increasing levels of effort and challenge, generally leads to better learning. However, studies suggest that when a course has higher levels of difficult, challenge and effort, students rate the professor’s teaching more negatively. Thus, while they may learn more, they like the experience less. Clayson also noted that in an unpublished study he found that the timing of the evaluation matters in a very rigorous course. Students rate professors teaching rigorous courses more negatively during course, but their ratings of the professor improved after the end of the course. (Perhaps as they recognize the value of the challenge and learning experienced during the course).  While we like lenient graders, we don’t tend to learn as much from them.

While it is not clear that student ratings of professors are transferable to follower ratings of leaders, it is suggestive. Perhaps we need to consider the nature of the challenge a leader places before us. Perhaps the more difficult the challenge, the less likely we are to rate the leader highly while experiencing the challenge.  Much as we like lenient graders, perhaps we like bosses who do not challenge us or hold us to high standards.  Sometimes we need leaders who challenge us, who hold us to higher standards. We may not like it, but we may need it.

In the end, good leadership may not be about how much you like your leader. It is more about how effective the leader is at creating vision, direction and change in your organization. Change is often difficult, challenging and painful. Good leaders do what is necessary, even if it means being disliked.

Source: Clayson, D. (2009). Student Evaluations of Teaching: Are They Related to What Students Learn? Journal of Marketing Education, 31(1), 16–30.

Categories: Leadership, Learning

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2 replies »

  1. Interesting research Colleen – a little disheartening perhaps and yet, at the same time, it makes some sense. However, I’m not sure how transferable it is to leader and what you call follower (yes, yes, we still differ on the value of that lingo). It seems to me a hugely significant difference is that a course by its very nature has an end to it. And as you point out, the student’s evaluation may well differ between when they’re in the midst of it and when they’re finished. I think in most cases, in terms of our work environment, our relationship with our leader is ongoing, indefinite … until you or she changes jobs. And in my experience (not just my own, but in the context of the leaders and aspiring leaders I work with), liking your boss/leader is important. I don’t mean you need to like them well enough to share a hot tub with them, but like them enough to have a personable, mutually engaging relaitonship. a relationship that says – we’re in this together. We need each other to be successful, we value each other’s work. I suppose it all falls to what we do mean by ‘liking’ someone … The research I read speaks persuasively of the importance of relationship building behaviours as crucial leadership work precisely because we do better work when we like our colleagues, like our job, and like our boss. And increasingly, neuroscience research offers compelling evidence that we do our best work in the context of a caring environment where we feel we belong and we matter. The quality of those key relationships can’t be under estimated.

    • I just don’t know the answer to this one. And you are right that we like our job better when we like our boss. But sometimes a boss who is likeable won’t do the difficult things that need to be done, in order to continue to be liked. The problem is that there is no solid research that shows that a likeable leader results in better organizational performance (as compared to individual performance).

      From what I understand, Steve Jobs wasn’t all that likeable, but people admired and respected him.

      On the terminology leader/follower, how about leader/member? PS. I’m doing a thing at Brescia in the fall on the relationship between leader and member — you might find it interesting.

      Thanks for reading….


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