The Likeability Trap

Why do women so often fall into the ‘likeability trap’? And how can we avoid it, asks Luciana Bellini…

We’re taught to believe that being liked is important. Getting along with others is a vital part of existence. It begins in the playground and continues into later life: from making friends at school and university to being hired for jobs and climbing the career ladder. And that’s even more true if you happen to be a woman.

The urge to be liked is a powerful force, and one felt particularly keenly by women. Across cultures, we are conditioned to think of ourselves in relation to others: as wives, as mothers, as daughters. This strengthens an innate desire to people-please. But likeability is wholly subjective and a moving target: a quality judged not by ourselves but by those around us. That makes it one of the trickiest issues to pin down.

This is particularly relevant in the workplace, where women still face a likeability penalty in just about everything they do, from hiring to promotions. ‘Any time you, as a woman, advocate for yourself, you are asking yourself, “Is the thing that I am potentially getting worth the potential trade-off in likeability?”’ observed journalist Alicia Menendez – author of The Likeability Trap – on an NPR podcast. ‘Because likeability isn’t just who sits next to you at lunch. It’s also about who is seen as a person who is on a path to success. And so those trade-offs are very real.’

It’s a blessing and a curse to be able to read the temperature of a room as soon as you enter – something Menendez calls a female ‘superpower’ – and be able to connect with people from all walks of life. But staying attuned to the wants and needs of others can be
deeply draining.

If this all sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Ask any of your female friends and it’s likely they feel the same way: struggling with wanting to be liked but not wanting it to hold them back. Falling into the likeability trap is easy. The real issues come when the desire to appear amiable stops us being our authentic selves, and when our decisions become governed by a need to be liked.

In The Likeability Trap, Menendez identifies three pitfalls for women at work. First is the brilliantly named ‘Goldilocks conundrum’: ‘She’s too warm, she’s too strong, she’s rarely just right.’ If you’re perceived as too warm, you’re usually not considered leadership material. Too strong? You could be asked to tone it down for fear of ruffling feathers.

The second trap questions whether likeability and authenticity are luxuries that everyone is afforded. Is it actually possible for women to lead as themselves?

Or is being your authentic self and being well-liked an option open only to those who align with the dominant office culture?

The third trap, says Menendez, is the ‘damned if you do’: the more successful a woman, the less people like her. And so, at every turn, it feels like women are asked to choose between being successful and being liked.

HOW DO WE AVOID LIKEABILITY TRAPS?

Find your people: ‘Find people who get you,’ says Menendez, ‘who see you, who understand the inherent value of the skills that you bring, and who, when you do get this type of feedback, you can go to and say, “Hey, does this sound like me?”’

Ask for concrete feedback: ‘When executive coach Caterina Kostoula’s clients receive critical, subjective feedback, she encourages them to ask questions,’ says Alicia Menendez. ‘Ask for evidence of how these qualities are impacting the work or their team. Caterina suggests asking, “Can you be more concrete?” or “How does this thing I do impact my work?” In some cases, the enquiry allows the reviewer to offer more helpful, objective feedback. In other cases, it forces them to reconsider the necessity of the commentary.’

Don’t make yourself smaller: ‘Being humble does not mean being meek,’ writes executive coach Hanna Hart in her forbes.com piece ‘Moving Beyond Likability’. To make a significant contribution, you need to leverage all your strengths, not minimise them out of fear that others will be turned off or intimidated. Be bold and decisive, and let your voice be heard.

Focus on influence, not control: ‘You cannot control if others like you, but you can influence their thinking and behaviour,’ says Hart. ‘This involves building relationships, understanding your constituents and including their interests in your vision, strategy and decisions, to bring them along.’

Know when it’s time to leave: ‘You need to know when the place that you work doesn’t align with your values and doesn’t see the potential that you bring in,’ says Menendez. ‘There are a lot of us who believe that if we just work hard enough, then we can make it fit. And sometimes that fit isn’t there.’