The Curse of Likeabilty - and what you can do about it

Well-behaved women seldom make history.
— Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Step Up, Speak Out, Take Charge - a woman's guide to getting ahead in your career.


I read quotes like the one above from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and am inspired, in awe and totally on board. Yet when the rubber hits the road, I’m the first to admit that I frequently choose to be liked over being remembered for my achievements. 

I’ve even made decisions about my own career that have been motivated by my need to be liked. For example when two friends (peers) find a role that they’re both qualified for and one doesn’t apply because they don’t want to damage the friendship. Quite possibly on a purely social measure, this is the right decision, but surely if the friendship is an honest and open one there might be alternatives.

One of our driving motivators as human beings is to be loved, liked and included. While this might be part of the human condition, I suspect that women have been socialised to need be liked far more so than men and it’s become the social norm.

Leadership is not a popularity contest

But in the workplace creating a personal band that combines likeability and getting things done is a delicate balance. If we’re too likeable we’re considered ineffective - it’s a liability, a burden and a curse all in one. Yet if we get it wrong and ditch likeability too far, there is a large social penalty which, according to research, is far greater for women than for men. When we behave in less than stereo-typically feminine ways we bear a significant burden:

  • We’ve all heard of Sheryl Sandberg’s #banbossy campaign - because when a young girl is direct and forthright we label her bossy yet if a young boy behaved that way he’s just developing his leadership potential.
  • When women negotiate too hard we’re labelled as hard nosed or aggressive if on behalf of someone else, or greedy if on behalf of ourselves. While men might also bear some social cost it’s far greater for a woman, and aggressive is seen as a more stereotypically masculine trait anyway.
  • When we talk about our own wins and achievements we might be perceived as displaying naked self promotion, yet it’s okay for a man to do the same.
  • When we need to give feedback or are required to performance manage someone we might worry about their feelings (displaying emotional intelligence) because if we don’t we’re labelled not nice or hard nosed (with the inference being that nice is better than effective) plus we there is the legacy of hurt feelings and remembered pain that apparently lasts far longer for women with negative emotional pain laying down stronger memories for women.

If and when we act feminine enough (what ever that might be), which includes being inclusive and concerned about the well being of others, then we win in the likeability stakes.  When we behave less than stereotypically feminine we lose in the likeability stakes.

The research could not be more clear in that we tolerate more aggressive or assertive behaviour by men more than women.
— Linda Babcock


People pleasing

However I also believe that some women (me included) can take this needs to be liked to another level. As a regular people pleaser from way back, putting other people’s needs before my own, worrying about what other people think and waiting for the approval of others have each been significant stumbling blocks.  I’ve always operated with the mantra of you can attract more flies with honey as a strategy, yet I’m pretty sure that as a Board room strategy that won’t fly very far.

If you just set out to be liked, you will be prepared to compromise on anything at anytime, and would achieve nothing.
— Margaret Thatcher


Some signs that you’re focused too much on likeability

  • Not wanting to express a controversial opinion
  • Struggling to provide feedback without over polite qualifiers
  • You worry about other people’s feeling and needs before your own
  • You avoid difficult conversations at all costs
  • You avoid making decision until you’ve got consensus from everyone involved
  • You hate performance appraisal time because you take the criticism as a personal criticism
  • You struggle to performance manage or provide constructive feedback to staff
  •  You martyr yourself to protect your staff
  • People pleasing behaviours such as trying to curry favour or buy approval i.e. you bake muffins for the 100 head office staff …………
  • Prefacing opinions with “I’m no expert but ……”
  • Under negotiating on behalf of yourself
  • Under negotiating on behalf of your team and then rationalising it to them
  • Personalising everything at the office, not able to separate your identity from your performance -  you are your work
  • You worry about how other people perceive you, you become a chameleon and your own sense of identity is compromised
  • Focusing on looking pretty, young and appealing rather than credible - and there’s some really fun research you can read here about how looking young and feminine (which as per the research translates to likable) gets in the way of perceptions about your competence and influence

What can you do about it?
Once again recognition is the first step. And while the delicate balance between nice girl and hard nosed b*tch might hard to navigate it’s not impossible.  Yes we live in a biased world and some of what I might say may not seem fair, but if your goal is get a seat at the table so that you can change the way things are, then maybe we need to learn.

Remember, we want the trifecta - to be paid well (and equally), to be heard and to make a bigger difference - so here's what to do:

  • If your journey is a leadership journey stop trying to look (and sound) young and pretty and focus instead on effective - credible, influential and leaderly are a good start.  Young and pretty do buy likeability, but depending on your industry and audience, won’t necessarily buy credibility and influence.
  • Update your LinkedIn photo and any web presence with a photo that positions you as a credible expert, rather than cute or funny.
  • Learn how to have difficult conversations with grace and poise - focused on the outcome.
  • Learn to make decisions on your own - and remember, any decision, even the wrong one, is better than no decision.
  • Make a weekly habit of collecting and quantifying evidence of wins and achievements so that you can articulately quantify or defend performance debates if required.  This will help you calmly provide evidence of outcomes rather than sound like you are bragging. It also helps if you’ve been criticised for being aggressive when all you’ve done is led a change management program and stood your ground on a few issues that challenged the status quo.
  • Find a negotiation preparation sheet so that you are better prepared to negotiate on your own behalf and for others in ways that are effective and yet won’t cost you socially.
  • Learn to separate your work performance from your identity - a project failure might be a failure but it’s not a criticism of your identity - and as someone wisely said to me, her business failure was an MBA in the making. What she learned from the failure was so very helpful and as much part of her now very successful corporate career, as was her formal academic learning or on the job in her corporate career.
  • Find your why. Once you find your why it is far easier to be yourself and do the work you need to do, whether you are liked or not.
The question isn’t who is going to let me: it’s who is going to stop me.
— Ayn Rand

Likability is not all bad

Don't get me wrong, likability isn't all bad. In fact, it's been a really helpful tool in feminine ambition tool kit for many, may years. But when it's your only currency, or the only tool you have, it's going to get in the way of you achieving everything it is you want to achieve.

My mission is to help women to play a much bigger game – change the world if you will – and do so with big ideas, big vision and big, audacious bucket loads of confidence.

Vive la révolution! #feminineambition #LookOutCSuiteHereSheComes #ambitionrevolution

  •  I am the creator of The Ambition Revolution – the science and art of amping smart and savvy.
  • I mentor busy professionals to ensure they remain strategic, agile and focused on the bigger game.
  • I also work with organisations who are trying to increase the profile of women in leadership, but struggling to do so



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