The Willingness to be Unpopular
Updated: Feb 24
Leaders, I have an essential question for you. It has to do with a concept that determines your success in and out of the workplace, especially if you are a parent. And, as a bit of fair warning, I will tell you now that your answer to this question should be an emphatic "yes"!
Are you ready? The question is, "Are you ready and willing to be unpopular with your team and/or children?"
I cannot overstate it enough: the most crucial qualification for effective leadership is the willingness and the courage to be unpopular. If you don't believe me, take a moment to consider the level of criticism leveled at leaders of all sorts in our country. Nearly everyone in a position of power or leadership, from the Commander-in-Chief to minor celebrities with Twitter accounts, has their every move picked apart. Invariably, they will do or say something that others dislike and pay the consequences.
However, as you already know, being a leader means carrying the burden of decision-making. Regardless of how unpopular it makes you, you need to act decisively and have the courage to do what needs to be done. Inevitably, you will make a decision that others will not agree with and must deal with the criticism, as well as a dip in your popularity. Leaders need to develop thick skin. No matter what you do, there will be people in your organization who will have an armchair-quarterback response. Nothing you, or anyone, can do is good enough for these types of people.
For example, a few years back, a new employee of mine showed up to work six out of fifteen days. It was clear that I knew I had to let him go! He was a good person, but he was obviously in the wrong job. When I approached him to tell him that such behavior would not fly, he became defensive and went off on me. He told me I was a jerk but couldn't justify how his inability to show up on time made me one. This employee could not grasp that if I did not confront him about his unacceptable behavior, I couldn't enforce the rule with others as well. My popularity with this employee suffered, but I had to face him. As the saying goes, I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't.
Another example that I'm sure many others have had is when I interviewed five promising candidates for a supervisory position. Immediately after making my decision, it dawned on me that the chosen one would believe I made the right pick, while the other four would think I was some kind of a jerk. Or, I thought, they would assume that I liked the other candidate more. While it was true that I did like the candidate who got the job, it was also true that I needed their strong technical and interpersonal skills for the position.
And it doesn't stop there. Even if you are successful, others will feel the need to take you down a peg. Take, for example, my neighbors. They are a husband-and-wife real estate team and are one dynamic duo: they've sold hundreds of houses with their unique high-octane tenacity. Even so, I overheard a rookie real estate agent talking them down behind their back at a neighborhood block party a couple of years ago. Despite his shoddy track record, this newbie had the gall to accuse them of poor customer service. Unfortunately, it is par for the course in our culture: succeed, and others will take it upon themselves to humble you. Leaders, it would help if you kept it in perspective that some will find any reason to find fault with your work.
Finally, the importance of being willing to be unpopular seemed to hit home in a particular way for an attendee of a recent virtual presentation of The Gray Zone; It's Not Who Is Right-What is Right in the Workplace. The seminar helps teams understand differing perceptions of various workplace problems and how to address them. After the workshop, I received a phone call from a young woman who was a non-management attendee.
She admitted that she tended to have a chip on her shoulder against leadership, likely from having many ineffective leaders over the past years. However, she said, "John, you blindsided me during the presentation when you asked the audience not to criticize another person's work until you tried the job yourself." She continued, sharing with me that her 24-year-old daughter had just been promoted to a supervisor for the very first time, and, as a mother, she had a hard time understanding her daughter's frustration in the workplace with her new team members.
She struggled to give advice and even suggested that her daughter watch Undercover Boss on CBS for tips on how to treat people with dignity and respect. But she then admitted, "John, I had no idea how difficult a leader's job can be. When you brought up the examples of your neighbors who are realtors, terminating the tardy employee and hiring the supervisor, it dawned on me how I could help my daughter in her new job as a leader."
She continued, "I got to thinking during your presentation - as a parent, I did not always give my kids what they wanted. After turning down my kid's sometimes unrealistic demands and whims, I can't tell you how often I heard my kids say, "Mom, I don't like you!" Back then, I simply chalked it up to tough love. Now I can see where leaders just their job doing will receive criticism. I will tell my daughter that criticism comes with the territory as a supervisor. I might even go as far as telling her, congratulations if you made an enemy. Congratulations if someone disagrees with you. All that means is you did something!"
The famed American psychologist Abraham Maslow devised a pyramid reflecting needs that all human beings need to be productive and meaningful. It covers everything from basic needs like food and shelter to more abstract needs like self-actualization. On level three, we find the need for love, belonging, and acceptance. For all of its importance, the willingness to be unpopular is much easier said than done.
So, when I said earlier that the willingness to be unpopular is a necessary qualification for effective leadership, you can also understand why it is difficult to find. Being an effective leader flirts with losing the human need for connection and belonging. Every decision you make as a leader puts your relationship with your team in jeopardy, but you do what needs to be done as a leader. It takes courage to be an effective leader! So, the next time you see a leader getting ripped for trying to do something, keep in mind that there has never been a statue erected for a critic. Your most effective leaders understand the key to balancing a team member's need to be treated with dignity and respect. The responsibility to demonstrate tough love is in the daily application of leadership fundamentals. Leaders Are Made, Not Born!