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Do I Have to be Likeable to Succeed?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Do I Have to be Likeable to Succeed?

(And why do I have to ask this?)


In a world of increased competition, a business’ success may depend on its likeability as much as on its expertise. Having likeable products and likeable/supportive sales and customer service staff can help a firm stand out in a crowded pack.


But what about personal likeability, especially for professional women?


The notion of being “likeable” at work appears to plague professional women more than it does professional men. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg discusses how "success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women." In other words, the higher on the corporate ladder a woman climbs, the less likeable she is perceived to be. In the case of a man, the opposite holds true. Sandberg presents a massive amount of data to support this fact, whether we like it or not.


And yet, in “New Research Shows Success Doesn’t Make Women Less Likable,” Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman conclude from their analysis of assessments of men and women leaders who have come through their leadership program that “likeability and success actually go together remarkably well for women.”


So what gives (and I’m smiling while writing this in an effort to remain likeable).


In many ways, this differing of opinion cycles back to cultural norms for female behavior. Women are culturally regarded as being natural collaborators, supportive of the efforts of others. So when a woman in a position of leadership collaborates with her peers or with her subordinates, she is considered to be “likeable” and often receives high marks for her leadership.


The issue becomes less clear when a woman leader’s opinion differs from her peers, has to make difficult decisions that involve job reductions or dismissals, or has to act in an authoritative manner.It is in these circumstances that a professional woman’s likeability may suffer, as she is judged to be aggressive. Simply put, a professional woman acting authoritatively may be violating gender stereotypes that support cultural norms.


Marianne Cooper has studied the conundrum that many professional women face: be a team player and be liked; be a strong leader and be disliked. In “For Women Leaders, Likability and Success Hardly Go Hand-in-Hand,” Cooper writes:


Women are expected to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing. Thus, if a woman acts assertively or competitively, if she pushes her team to perform, if she exhibits decisive and forceful leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she “should” behave. By violating beliefs about what women are like, successful women elicit pushback from others for being insufficiently feminine and too masculine.


So, does a professional woman have to swallow a desire to be liked in order to be successful? (Still smiling while writing.) Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm, writes about this uniquely female dilemma in “Likable vs. Successful: The Issue Women Leaders Face.”


From her perspective, professional men don’t care if you do or don’t like them. They don’t care if you don’t like their decisions. But women, according to Dietrich, adjust their behavior to be likable.


Admitting that she herself likes to be liked, Dietrich has some tough words for professional women:


We do care what others think about us and that gives us less power in the boardroom and in our personal lives. In a world where we want the top jobs and equal pay and equal rights, we have to stop playing a supporting role in our own lives. By wanting to be liked, we are more concerned with what others think about us than with doing the very best job, even if it’s not popular.


In trying to make sense of all of this – and don’t ask me to comment on “resting bitch face,” please! – I wonder if it is possible to blend the positive “female” trait of collaborator with that of an assertive authority in a working environment. A true collaborator is honest and challenging but never argumentative for the sake of argument. Collaborators never disregard the feeling of others, even while honestly disagreeing, honest, but not so blunt as to disregard the feelings of others. They are challenging, but supportive. This kind of leadership has within its DNA a genetic marker for emotional intelligence.


So, being likeable in a professional setting is tricky for women. But maybe “likeability” isn’t the scale on which we should be measured. I think it’s a good thing to rely on our natural instincts to collaborate as well as on our intrinsic sensibility about the feelings of others when making tough decisions. Remaining honest and supportive of our peers and our subordinates while also remaining true to our beliefs, knowledge, and instincts, even during times when we disagree with a direction or proposal or when we must make difficult decisions, may begin to formulate a paradigm for leadership that is especially female. And it doesn’t measure likeability at all.


Written by: Carol Jambor-Smith Founder and Principle of Jambor-Smith Communications.Jambor-Smith Communications provides you with the strategy and training you need to execute internal and external communications that empower and motivate staff, build and retain clients, and inspire interest and confidence in your brand.For more information, contact Carol Jambor-Smith at


Professional Women's Club of Chicago, PWCC is a Chicago based networking organization that provides networking connections that support, enrich and inspire women to advance professionally and personally. Members come from public and private sectors, multi-billion dollar corporations, mid-size and small businesses, as well as, non-profit organizations. Membership is open to women from all industries in all stages of their careers who want to develop a strong lifelong network. Learn more about membership and upcoming activities

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