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A Secret Ambition to be Unpopular

I spout off with the unabashed frankness of a four-year-old. I curse like a one-eyed-drunken-sailor. I have an A.D.H.D. level of tolerance for the mediocre and the mundane. I’m stubborn – particularly when it comes to my opinion. I like to argue. And if I don’t like you – for whatever reason – you’ll be the second person to know it. I used to worry about my popularity. Now I don’t.

Getting there is (sometimes) more important than how you get there.

Let’s face it: rainbows, butterflies and mylar balloons are nice; but if that’s all we had flying around the office, we’d quickly grow disgusted by them…in a maddening way. If we all went around glad-handing one another, we’d never get anything done…or at least we’d never get anything really meaningful done. You don’t necessarily have to be liked t0 be a “credible activist.” In fact, making people just a little uncomfortable is often the spark you need to light a big old 5-alarm fire. And if someone tells you to “take that hill,” sometimes you gotta march right up there and take it with little regard for friendly fire or civilian casualties.

‘Popular’ is not in your job description.

You’re already unpopular with the rank and file: the first reaction from any employee when they see you walking down the hall will always be, “oh crap, what did I do now.” But I know you’re trying very hard to be (and stay) popular with your superiors, the leadership team at-large, and maybe even your peers. You’ve been told to  “stoop to conquer”; that in order to advance the cause you must first win over the hearts of others; that you’ll be more successful in “moving the needle” if people like you. Sure, that’s probably true…if you only want to move the needle a notch or two…or if you’re willing to wait a lifetime for the needle to move.

Well, I don’t want that.

I hope you never miss the opportunity to try something new, to take a risk, to speed things up, or to bring a game-changing talent management idea to the conversation because you’re afraid it will compromise your popularity. In fact, develop a secret ambition to be unpopular. Make the hard pitch, wrestle with the cutting-edge, force the tough conversation, and address the elephant in the room. If it makes your people, your talent, and your organization better, who cares if it makes you popular?

Image Credit: el-maddog

  • Brad


    This is a great post and one that many newbies to HR need to read and unsderstand. During one of my first days in my current position, I endeared myself permanently to one of our other senior leaders when I said “I’m not here to be liked.” My predecessor was often concerned about people liking him and would tread carefully when something might upset people. Although I certainly do not go out of the way to get on anyone’s **itlist, it doesn’t bother me when it happens since it usually means I’m doing my job in the way it needs to be done.

  • Jason Lauritsen

    Amen, brother. In a past job, when my boss told me that it was important that my team and I be well liked, I knew I was screwed. When you put popular before effective, there’s a huge freaking problem.

    Good post.

  • Dave Ryan

    Damn Charlie you need to learn to be a little more direct. Good stuff!

  • Anonymous

    my biggest strength…and weakness.

  • Anonymous

    i think this is at the root of a major disconnect between what our leaders think our role is for the organization and what we ourselves think our role is.

  • Anonymous

    i definitely gauge my own progress and success based at least partially on how uncomfortable i’m making people around me. it’s not supposed to be easy. thanks for the comment!

  • Carrie Corbin

    I love this! I too have always been direct, have challenged the status quo in search of a better or more efficient way and have most certainly been a risk-taker… I will always struggle with finding the balance, however, as a female in the HR world who doesn’t want to stereo-type myself by saying the rules are different for me, but the reality is, they often are. I’m supposed to be nice. I’m supposed to be likeable. I’m not supposed to balk when my boss tells me as part of my annual review that I should learn to use my “cheerleader voice.” (yes, really… and I was a cheerleader in college dammit.. and we don’t squeak. We yell, loudly).

    The result of my pushing for excellence, however, for challenging the way things have always been done, taking risks, etc… not only got me fired (thankfully), but helped me land where I am now – which is actually well outside the HR walls I used to live in. The point is, I got here and I love where I am, but the road was definitely a bumpy one… but recognizing there is still a need for balance and assessing your audience is still appropriate.

  • Anonymous

    love your story and classify it as “case in point.” particularly the part about it getting you fired only to land you in the place you’d rather be. life is funny (and righteous) like that! thanks for sharing and thanks for shunning popularity!