The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Being Effective and Liked in the Workplace

A couple weeks ago, I wrote an article about how to be liked by service employees and blue collar workers. I wasn’t writing about “in the workplace” or “as a manager,” but most commenters read it as both.

Today, let’s actually talk about being effective (and yes, liked) in the workplace. I’ve been out of a corporate environment for years now, but my last corporate gig was at a large insurance company. It wasn’t managerial, though I led the occasional team and was responsible for one large departmental reorganization. Instead, I was a senior line employee: responsible for getting stuff done that required the help of many other people, but without the authority to just make them do things. By my count, at one point, up to 16 other specialties, spread across almost a dozen different departments, could be required.

I had no authority, but I needed other people to get my job done.

Until I went off the rails in my last year or so, I was very good at this job. And I’ve held line authority positions elsewhere, including being a dispatcher and a managing editor.

So, here are Ian’s guidelines for getting folks to do what you want, at work, and having them like it. To be clear, these never worked on everyone, but they have always worked on enough people.

First, find something to admire. A couple years into that corporate gig, I was talking to a friend who was complaining about our co-workers and how she could never get them to do anything for her.

I said, “Most of the people you’re complaining about are happy to help me. It might be that I like them.” The co-worker she found a persnickity snob, I found precise, knowledgeable, and willing to share his knowledge. The boss she disliked (our mutual boss) was one of the best bosses I ever had, understanding and kind, who never failed to give me the material support I needed. And so on.

Most people go through life with very little admiration. Their families take them for granted at best, nag them at worst. Their bosses pay them attention only when something goes wrong. Their coworkers are concerned only with themselves. All of this is natural– people’s first and second concern tends to be themselves, and they are interested in others only as those people reflect them.

But it’s not hard to find something to admire or like in most people. Maybe they work hard, maybe they’re reliable, maybe they’re really precise, maybe they’re insightful. Find something and genuinely admire it. Don’t be a flatterer, your admiration and appreciation must be real. Faking it is endless work, and unless you’re really great at being fake, you’ll screw it up.

Remember, you don’t need everyone, you just need enough people.

People can tell when you actually like and admire them. And they want to keep that admiration, so they’ll be generous with their time, advice, and help. This isn’t enough by itself, but it is the essential foundation.

Next, treat them right.

I had a few rules I followed at work.

1) If I ask someone to stay late to do something for me, I don’t leave until the job is done, either. It’s my job to be there to help them if they need it. In seven years at that job, I only left work once before someone who was doing me a favor. I apologized and she forgave me, but if I had made a habit of it, she wouldn’t have stayed late for me.

2) If someone helped me, I cleared the way for them. If I asked them to do something, I ran all the interference I could; I got their bosses permission if necessary, if anyone else was needed to help, I was the one who ran them down. If they needed anything else to get it done, I got it.

3) If they were doing me a favor and something went wrong, I took the blame, even if I could have shifted it onto them, even if they made a mistake. They would never lose from helping me if I could make it so they didn’t.

4) If something went right, I made sure they got the credit, and that meant to their boss, to their face, and publicly to others. They got praise, and that praise went where it would make their lives better. Including in writing when appropriate (usually) and in terms of my nominating them for workplace prizes and whatnot.

5) In general, I acted like they were great people, and I meant it. My gratitude was not fake or bombastic, it was real. I was glad to see them, I smiled at them. I thought they were great people. (Note, I did not socialize with my co-workers, with very few exceptions.  This is not based on being their out-of-work friends.)

Did everyone like me? Hell no, some people hated my guts. But enough people liked me. I was able to get many people to do favors for me they would not do for actual management. I was able to get people to stay late, for example, who would simply not stay late for their actual bosses. (It was the sort of workplace at which the boss could not just order someone to work extra hours.)

I was also always on very good terms with my immediate boss, which has been the case in almost all my jobs, simply because I delivered.

Unfortunately, I can’t give any advice on managing up beyond the immediate boss level. As a rule, I’ve always been terrible at dealing with upper-upper-management. Perhaps because they’re used to people saying what they want to hear, and I don’t do that.  Remember, my admiration was real. But I don’t blow smoke up people’s asses: If something can’t be done, I say so. If something is illegal (I handled the compliance for the area), I say so. If there will be negative effects from a decision, I say what they are. And if more resources are needed to get something done properly and in time, I let them know.

Or, perhaps, I was just kind of a jerk.

But the jerkiness was, in most cases, predicated on protecting my people. I can’t override management, especially senior management, but I can put my body in the way, and I can say, “If you do that, it’s going to go wrong in the following ways.”

A few senior management types appreciated that, my direct managers almost always did (a couple exceptions aside), but the more senior the management was, the less I found they were interested in the real world consequences of their decisions, and the more they wanted to be told “we can do that,” even if their ideas were terrible.

So, that’s the Ian Prescription for getting shit done at work, and being liked by enough people, but pissing off the wrong people. Will you be loved? I can’t say I was. Not really my personality at the time. But when I asked for help or favors, I got them.

The same general strategy worked when I was in leadership positions, if combined with strict fairness. When I was a dispatcher, for example, I did not play favorites. The person who could do the delivery fastest got the delivery, even if it was an easy, well-paying one; I didn’t give it to my “favorites.” You only got sidelined for important deliveries if you’d proved, again and again, that you were unreliable. Most dispatchers I dealt with had favorites. I, being human, did too. But I didn’t let that affect my dispatching.

In leadership: fairness. People are treated in accordance with their demonstrated abilities and are given chances to show what they can do. Their successes are celebrated, publicly, their failures discussed in private unless an example needs to be made (which, on occasion they did; justice must be seen to be done).

All of this, in my opinion, is just an extended example of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; combined with some common sense (no, I’m not going to let you do shoddy work).

Treat people right, and they’ll treat you right. There are some people with whom “right” treatment doesn’t work. If I’m a manager, I get rid of those people. If I’m in a position, as I was in my corporate gig where I didn’t have the power to do so, I’d sideline them to the extent that I could; nothing “mission critical” or “Ian critical” went through them if I could avoid it.

Treat people right. It isn’t hard.

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  1. Dan Lynch

    I can go along with you with regards to dealing with subordinates and coworkers — “treat people right.” Praise and appreciation go a long way.

    On the other hand, I don’t find your advice helpful for dealing with management. Yes, there were things I admired about every manager. For example, one particular psychopathic manager was a great salesman, as psychopaths often are. Sales were part of his job and he was good at that. But managing the workers who actually performed the contracts was also part of his job — I was one of those workers he managed — and he was incompetent at that, and personally abusive to boot.

    Another middle manager I worked for was good at going to meetings and playing corporate games with the other managers. He was cool under pressure and good at smoothing over conflicts with other departments and keeping upper management off our back, and that was a big part of his job, so I could admire those qualities. But it was also part of his job to supervise and support the workers who actually did the work, like me, and he sucked at that. He never supported me, he never helped me, he never praised me.

    So what I see is see in management is a common thread — they rise to management because they have psychopathic tendencies. They’re good at playing games, they’re good at telling people what they want to hear, and they’re attracted to positions of power. They have no scruples about treating their subordinates like shit, about breaking labor laws, about breaking safety laws, about overcharging customers — which is often a necessary part of the job, expected by upper management, and if you refuse to do those things they’ll replace you, or more likely you would never be promoted to a management position in the first place.

    There was a legend at one of my workplaces about how the maintenance manager got his job. First they went to the best mechanic, and asked him if he wanted to become the maintenance manager. He replied “no, because if I were a manager then I would have to be an asshole.” So then they went to the 2nd best mechanic, but he also turned down the job because he didn’t want to be an asshole, either. Finally they came to the least talented mechanic, and asked him if he wanted the management job, but warned him “you know that if you take this management position, you’ll have to be an asshole.” He replied “hell, I’m already an asshole!” and he got the job. 🙂

    I don’t know if that legend was really true, but it rings true.

    In my experience, if you have a bad manager — and there are a lot of bad managers out there — you are screwed. The nicer a person you are, the more you are screwed because psychopaths, like schoolyard bullies, will pick on weaklings and avoid conflicts with people who stand up for themselves.

    So yes, being kind is a good rule of thumb, but there are exceptions to every rule, and dealing with psychopaths is that exception.

  2. nihil obstet

    Most people feel undervalued and ignored, and in most cases, that feeling is accurate. They will do good work if they have the opportunity and they will have high moral if their value is acknowledged. I actually didn’t have to look for something to admire in people who reported to me; if I did my job, making sure that we both understood what needed to be done, that the person had the means to do it, and that I could see the results, people that I thought were useless toads would simply transform into valuable workers. That taught me a big lesson.

    Belief in meritocracy turns management into problems. Most people can do their jobs and there’s not all that much difference between the job done adequately and some higher level of achievement. Looking to distinguish between levels of adequacy is counterproductive. Generally, you end up choosing aspects of the job to privilege. Then people whose skills are different feel neglected or forced to abandon their strengths.

    I have had more trouble than you with immediate supervisors. At some point, management became a status rather than a function. As you say, they have no concern for the real world consequences of their decisions. They think good management consists of issuing orders, with no knowledge of whether they’re possible.

  3. cripes

    i have been promoted more than once “from the ranks” to middle management. I do mean ranks; forklift operator, inspector, case manager, later inventory controller, QA supervisor or department director.
    I was promoted for my ability to achieve better results with worker ownership pf processes and decisions and willingness to dispense with old methods that impeded the work. I thought being a supervisor meant giving the tools, resources and decision-making to the people held “accountable” for the work, so they could actually succeed.
    Then i was sidelined or fired because I “sympathized with the troops,” or pointed out “problems.”
    Yeah, keeping two sets of books, not calculating employee vacation time, or withholding program funds so we were risking losing grants is a problem.
    Upper management, as usual, was the worst.

  4. I was being considered for an upper middle management job and was being evaluated by a psychologist in behalf of the company. After all of the tests and interviews he asked me if I had any questions and, of course, I asked if he could tell me what his recommendation to them would be. He said that he would highly suggest to them that they hire me.

    He then added, saying that if I quoted him he would call me a liar, that he would suggest to me that I not take the job. He said that I was too much of a wave maker and would never be happy working in the “go along to get along” environment that they demanded. It was good advice and I took it.

  5. sanctimonious purist

    Well said, for the most part, but I don’t totally agree with this:

    “There are some people with whom “right” treatment doesn’t work. If I’m a manager, I get rid of those people. If I’m in a position, as I was in my corporate gig where I didn’t have the power to do so, I’d sideline them to the extent that I could; nothing “mission critical” or “Ian critical” went through them if I could avoid it.”

    I think that before you sideline someone, even if you are doing everything you mentioned, there is still more you can do to get the best out of them. Not just admiring and clearing the way for them to do a good job, but if needed, actually working with and maybe training them a little, either directly or by example.

    I work in an environment of written product and though I’m staff, not management, I am a sort of informal editor/team lead. And I’ve found that collaborating with the other staff on the team, talking about the assignments together, usually over some homemade banana bread, has helped bring out the best in everyone, such that I don’t need to sideline the folks that were sidelined before they were brought to my team.

  6. markfromireland

    Treat people right, and they’ll treat you right. There are some people with whom “right” treatment doesn’t work. If I’m a manager, I get rid of those people. If I’m in a position, as I was in my corporate gig where I didn’t have the power to do so, I’d sideline them to the extent that I could; nothing “mission critical” or “Ian critical” went through them if I could avoid it.

    I on the other hand do agree with it completely. If they’re unwilling or unable to do a fair amount of work over a period then you fire them. There is no reason why other employees who are doing their fair share of work plus the extra work caused by a colleague who is a burden should put up with that for more than a very limited period of time. A manager who fails to see that and fails to respond accordingly is also a liability and should be given one warning to start doing their job properly or also be dismissed.

    Treat people right. It isn’t hard.

    Treat people right – and that particularly includes paying them a decent wage and treating them with courtesy and respect and yes the overwhelming majority of people will work very very hard for you. Get rid of the others, they’re not worth the effort and expense and in today’s market are easily replaced.


  7. Lisa

    Career killer being liked and respected by staff and peers.

    The tyranny of the friendless.
    “Almost all organizations function as oligarchies, some with formal in-crowds (government officials or titled managers) and some without. If this in-crowd develops a conscious desire to exclude others, it will select and promote people who are likely to retain and even guard its boundaries. Only a certain type of person is likely to do this: friendless people. Those who dislike, and are disliked by, the out-crowd are unlikely to let anyone else in. They’re non-sticky: they come with a promise of “You get just me”, and that makes them very attractive candidates for admission into the elite.”

  8. markfromireland

    @ Lisa

    “Career killer being liked and respected by staff and peers.”

    Far too sweeping IMO and certainly hasn’t been the case in my experience. It depends on the organisation and on the type of organisation. And on how many MBAs infest the organisation in its middle and senior management.


  9. philadelphialawyer

    Nice that this time around the patronization was missing….

    Still have no problem with the actual advice…ie follow an “extended example” of the Golden Rule…although one wonders why the author thinks it is necessary to give it, or seems to think that he is saying anything particularly novel….

    I will also say that the potential for self valorization is pretty high when one recounts what one alleges is one’s personal history in a forum where there is no real way to verify it. Mr. Ian Welch may very well have done all the things he claims to have done….ie to have been more than fair to his subordinates, his co-equals and his immediate bosses, while refusing to be a “yes man” to the Bad Big Bosses. Then again, maybe he didn’t.

    I do think that Mr. Welch is being sincere in both his advice and his self evaluation. It is just that the tendency to get the latter somewhat wrong is high no matter who is doing the self evaluating.

    “markfromireland,” on the other hand, in his first post, at least, it seems to me, is just posturing and baiting. Much as he did on the last thread.

  10. markfromireland

    Yup that’s right when I agree with the OP and add things like this:

    “Treat people right – and that particularly includes paying them a decent wage and treating them with courtesy and respect and yes the overwhelming majority of people will work very very hard for you. “

    That is indeed posturing and baiting.


  11. Ian Welsh

    Yes never give advice that isn’t novel, like specifics of the Golden Rule, because everyone already runs the world by some version of the Golden Rule, so there’s no need to mention it again.

  12. philadelphialawyer


    I meant more this part…

    “Get rid of the others, they’re not worth the effort and expense and in today’s market are easily replaced.”

    Particularly that cavalier last bit….

    But then, I guess you knew that already, and are just continuing with the posturing and baiting.

    Ian Welch:

    “Yes never give advice that isn’t novel, like specifics of the Golden Rule, because everyone already runs the world by some version of the Golden Rule, so there’s no need to mention it again.”

    The folks that “run the world,” I should think, are already well aware of the Golden Rule, although they don’t follow it. And I hardly think, with all due respect, that they are coming here for advice. I am likewise pretty sure that just about everybody who does come here is also well aware of the Golden Rule (given that it is the more or less acknowledged one sentence encapsulation of Judeo Christian ethics). Thus, I am actually not quite sure what your purpose is in mentioning it.

  13. markfromireland

    There is nothing even slightly cavalier about firing people who are not doing their jobs. An employee who consistently underperforms leaving their colleagues to pick up the slack is acting as a parasite both upon their employer and upon their colleagues the only ethical thing to do with them is fire them.


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