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Overcome the Leadership Popularity Trap

Updated on July 5, 2020
George Mikituk profile image

George is an independent small business consultant and business owner with a mission to help entrepreneurs improve their management skills.

Leadership and popularity are often seen as being diametrically opposed. Business leaders have to make difficult decisions based on financial, strategic, and marketing needs that require profound changes at all levels of the organization. This kind of organizational transformation grates against the complacency that appeals to most employees. However, few of them have all the information required to see the necessity for change. Thus, the predominant tendency is to oppose the change in some way or form. The initiator of such change may become the object of dissatisfaction and outright anger.

Some managers and employees may even try to undermine or sabotage the changes in some way or form. The business leader can either confidently go forward with the changes or bend to the uninformed sentiments of others. The latter avoids ruffling their puffed up feathers. But true leadership requires strength of conviction. Nevertheless, it must be based on a thorough examination of the facts that leads to a logical strategic path and vision for the future.

Everyone wants to be popular and applauded for their contribution. It is just that employers and employees have a different perspective from which to observe the action. The business leader has a more panoramic view and a deeper knowledge of what it takes to win. Ultimately, if the existing strategy is not working changes must be made that are often unpopular.

But when the new strategy for the future is clear, well planned, and highly actionable then the boos will ultimately change to cheers. Leadership/popularity conflicts can be overcome by following some simple steps that lead to more harmonious outcomes.

Look For Respect, Not Popularity

Business decisions should be taken on the basis of objective and thorough information from both external and internal sources, assimilation of that data by the business leader, development of logical options, which leads to a final decision. The availability of data on markets, financing, mergers, and acquisitions, competition has been vastly improved in the digital age. By approaching decisions in this way the leader justly seeks to be respected even if the decisions have unpopular consequences for some.

Draw Friendship Boundaries

We sometimes forget that the business environment is highly competitive, and requires business leaders to make tough decisions. The responsibility of the leader is to be tough when needed but infuse this with fairness. Developing strong social bonds with employees leads to favoritism and biases that sway from this path. This does not mean that a warm and friendly approach is necessarily harmful, but it should be applied evenly to all.

Recognize the Sycophants

It is important to acknowledge that we sometimes do things to gain ego endorsement. There are always some members of the management team that will quickly recognize this tendency in the leader and play up to their vanity. This may render the homage-giver a privileged position in the mind of the business leader. However, these cheerleaders will applaud both good and bad decisions. The preferred approach is to take quiet satisfaction in the job well done and not require cheers from the chorus.

Avoid Personal Biases

Most people have some degree of bias on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, level of education, etc. This may lead to a tendency to please the group with whom you have the most affinity. It is worthwhile to do a thorough self-examination of possible bias and remove it from the decision making process. Look at your history of dealing with employees that come from different backgrounds than yours. Decide if it led to unintentional discrimination in the past. This may have contributed to poor policy, promotion, and strategic decisions.

Listen to Unpopular Employees

The opinion of the more disruptive members of the team, who may not be well-liked by other employees, should not be cast aside. They are often the ones with fresh ideas. Destructive creativity has transformed the global business landscape, and it is often led by those that we may consider being nerdy or weird. Let new ideas blossom at every level of the organization. Judge not where they come from but how beneficial they are to the company.

Support Variety in the Team

In a heavily globalized market, it is prudent to hire a varied mix of employees with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. This may not be seen as a popular move by other employees. They often want the team to be composed of like-minded individuals. However, foreign language skills and cultural sensitivity can be a huge benefit for new market penetration strategies. In this case, good leadership is expressed by showing others the benefit that these individuals bring to the company as a whole.

Stand Fast to Your Values

Managers that tend to vacillate on values and management style create confusion and mistrust. The credibility of their proposals is more prone to be questioned when tough measures are implemented. This is particularly true if the manager jumps from popular decisions to ones that cause discomfort in some of the employees. Every decision and action should be based on logic and careful analysis, whether it is popular or not. The surprising aspect of the popularity trap is that tough but wise decisions, which are criticized at the start, end up being popular when the benefits are seen.


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