How to be likeable at work

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

What do you do if someone doesn't like you?

I've been thinking about this one a lot lately. I would like to go on the record saying I don't care whether or not people like me, but that's not exactly true. On one hand, if I suspect that someone dislikes me, I usually take a beat to consider it before deeming it "their problem." On the other hand, if this same person reaches out to me in a positive way, one that suggests they might like me, I feel that same warmth of being liked and accepted—a feeling I'm sure we all like to relish. 

Reading this—and really considering my own professional behavior—I realized that I'm pretty consumed with being liked and likeable. I navigate my day-to-day with others in mind. I pipe down when I think I could be perceived as too forceful, I don't ask for things that might make others feel less than comfortable, and I constantly make allowances for things I shouldn't accept.  WHAT'S WRONG WITH BEING LIKEABLE?

There's nothing wrong with being likeable. I want to make that much clear. There's nothing wrong with being pleasant, polite, and generally easy to work alongside. In fact, if you search "how to be likeable", you will find hundreds of articles instructing you on how to be more likeable at work.  The problem we're talking about is the expectations of likeability. More specifically, there is a different expectation of "likeability" as part of a job function for women than there is for men. Nobody really finds this too shocking, I'm sure. A forum where you can see this regularly play out is politics. There are heaps more likeability talking points around women candidates or public officers. Simply put, there's an expectation of women to be pleasant, likeable, and agreeable.  According to a survey conducted by LinkedIn, men and women are equally likely to describe themselves as "good at my job" or confident." It's when they hit language around likeability that we diverge. In fact, women are 10 percent more likely to drop the term "likeable" in a job interview. And here is where the larger issue comes into play.

For women in the modern workplace (yes, right now) likeability and success rarely come at the same time. In fact, decades of research across institutions like NYU and Princeton have determined that women face unique social penalties for taking well-worn paths to success.  Is there a way to achieve success and remain likeable? Does it even matter? According to Menendez, women often face the Goldilocks Conundrum. As she explains "If you are a woman, as you rise professionally, somewhere between the entry-level and the middle, there is often a moment, or a series of moments, when you are made aware that something about the way you comport yourself is a problem." 

This is the Goldilocks Conundrum, which manifests itself in a series of "almost" phrases about a woman's work performance, tenacity, or "it factor." I think we are all familiar with this sort of deflective language. It's when you go in for that promotion and you're told you are not "quite management material" or that you're not "quite forceful enough." On the other hand, other women receive the "she's too aggressive", "too strong-willed" or the ever-so-succinct B-word. 

#workculture #likability

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