Mafia Management 101

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

One of the most common failings in management is the desire to be liked. Being liked, or wanting to be, seems to be a driving force within leadership. Human resources can worsen this when interviewing and conducting employee surveys. The question of "do you like" your co-workers, your vendors, your supervisors, and others comes up too often. I would agree with most people when they say that they want to like the people with whom they work. I imagine most people would also like to have a seven-figure salary in return for sitting on a beach, observing ocean wave patterns and taste-testing the local delicacies. Sadly, such opportunities are rare. Fortunately, affection amongst co-workers is rarely required to achieve organizational efficacy.

The best metaphor I can give for productive organizations is a professional sports team. Management tries to retain the most skilled people, everyone does their part, and everyone is working towards a common goal. I have had the pleasure of meeting several coaches of teams, and not a single one tells me that they want their players to like them. Even team captains are rarely concerned with being liked. Given the choice of being liked or getting results, good coaches choose results every time.

Robert Cialdini, in his book Influence, describes the most common factors that motivate human behavior, including "liking." People are more apt to buy from someone they like than someone they do not, simple as that. This fact is the basis for multi-level marketing companies and the cheesy stereotype of used car salesmen. Many managers seem to believe "liking" is also the best method for motivating employees. 

Cialdini's other significant finding was that "reciprocity" is a more powerful motivator than "liking." Reciprocity is the tit-for-tat, "scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" aspect of the business world. Given the choice of two applicants, managers will usually hire the person to whom they are indebted rather than the person they like. Reciprocity is the reason the mafia doesn't care if you like them; they want you to owe them. It's also why security companies give you a free in-home estimate and auto dealers give you a free test-drive. Any time you see a "free" offer upfront, that company is relying on reciprocity.

Managers should not wield reciprocity like the mafia. There are multitudes of legitimate and ethical ways to use reciprocity in management. For instance, managers can remind employees that the manager selected them for the job and with good reason. Managers can advise that everyone is working towards a common goal of supporting one another's families. Managers can suggest that the customer is paying for everyone's salary and expenses. Managers can also take care to protect, teach, and serve their employees.

Servant leadership relies on reciprocity for its effectiveness. Whenever employees feel as though their relationship with management is a one-way street, organizations suffer from a lack of commitment and sometimes a lack of compliance. Managers who prioritize their employees find life is more comfortable, regardless of whether those employees like the manager. The focus should be on helping employees succeed at their assigned task, not on making friends. To co-opt an adage, if you want a friend, get a dog. Great managers take care of their employees, and their employees reciprocate.