When Wanting to be Liked Can Hold You Back

For better or for worse, likability is a major component or measure of success, whether you work in business, government, tech or any other professional field. Organizations aim to create popular products and services, maintain a friendly, professional demeanor in interactions with clients and pay close attention to customer feedback. But can this desire to be liked have adverse effects when applied to the actual workforce — especially to women?

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg stated, “Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.” In other words, the higher a woman ascends on the corporate ladder, the less likeable she is perceived to be, while the opposite holds true for men.

This is true even for women at the very top. Each year, Glassdoor releases its Highest-Rated CEOs report, based on the input of employees rating of how their CEO was   leading the company. In the 2017 report, only three out of the top-50 CEOs were women.

Of course, there are overall fewer female CEOs of large companies. But there is a mountain of research indicating that there is a deeper, underlying reason to this disparity as well — the fact that successful women in the workplace are consistently viewed as less likeable than their male counterparts. Women and men can be doing the same things but be evaluated quite differently for their behaviors.

It is clear that in order to achieve equal representation at the top and truly break the glass ceiling, women need to stop agonizing over being “liked” and focus on success.

High-achieving women tend to experience backlash because their success — and the behaviors that created that success — violates expectations of how women are supposed to behave. If a woman is assertive, forceful, decisive and competitive, she is deviating from societal expectations that demand that women be kind, warm and nurturing.

There is no way to legislate likability, as opposed to other manifestations of workplace inequality like unequal pay or discrimination in hiring. However, the implications of the likability double bind are far-reaching. If women are constantly adjusting their behavior to adhere to common gender stereotypes, instead of focusing on achieving success, their careers and opportunities for advancement ultimately suffer.

For example, Kieran Snyder found that women’s performance reviews were more likely to include critical feedback. After analyzing more than 248 reviews, Snyder saw that negative personality criticism (with language centered on being “judgmental,” “icy” or “abrasive”) only showed up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It showed up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.

These findings mirror the results of research by McKinsey & Co. and Lean In, which found that women who negotiate are 67 percent more likely than women who don’t to receive feedback that their personal style is “intimidating,” “too aggressive,” or “bossy.” They are also more likely to receive this kind of feedback than men who negotiate.

The 2016 study, based on a survey of 132 companies employing more than 4.6 million people, also found that women actually negotiate for raises and promotions more often than men do, but are far less likely to receive them. Harvard’s Hannah Riley Bowes showed that women were in fact penalized by evaluators for initiating negotiations and violating the gendered expectation that women be passive.

Knowing that these double binds and stereotypical perceptions abound, what are some crucial strategies to combat a work culture that penalizes strong women (especially in male-dominated fields)?

  • Be cognizant of inherent bias. The first step we can take, at an individual level, is recognizing that our gut reaction or initial thoughts are likely colored by prescriptive gender stereotypes. When filling out performance reviews or providing criticism, think about the types of language you’re deploying. Would I describe this issue in the same way if I were talking about a male employee? Is mentioning my female supervisor’s “abrasiveness” or criticizing her “tone” constructive here?
  • As a manager or supervisor, cultivate an environment where women are encouraged to be vocal and outspoken and can take on leadership roles. Engage in good faith with female employees who ask for a raise or want to negotiate their contracts.
  • Support other women in the workplace. Speak up when you see discrimination or subtle sexism directed at your female coworkers or supervisors.
  • As difficult as it can be to feel as though you aren’t liked by some of your coworkers, remember that you can’t please everyone. Sometimes not being liked can mean you’re doing something right. Focus on the things you can control.

Ultimately, it’s important to be who you are. Don't limit yourself or try to shape yourself into someone you think people will like the most. As Jessica Valenti wrote in the Nation, “Living in a constant state of self-deprecation is no way to be. Humbleness does not protect you from sexism — it just makes the slights harder to see.” Letting go of “likability” frees you to focus on advancing your career and becoming a stronger leader.

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