27 September 2023

Be like me: Why women are still being caught in the likeability trap

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Hanna Hart* says it’s time to reject the idea that, for women leaders, likeability and success cannot go hand-in-hand.

Photo: Zoran M.

Everywhere you look, women are rocking it.

This year saw a dramatic rise in the number of women CEOs in the Fortune 500.

Young women have some very impressive entrepreneurial role models, as documented in Diana Kapp’s recent book, Girls Who Run the World: 31 CEOs Who Mean Business.

There are a record number of women in politics globally.

We also witnessed some tremendously competent and powerful female career diplomats – notably Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill – testify in the recent US impeachment inquiry hearings.

And yet, “the likeability trap is still a thing”.

A recent New York Times/Siena College poll indicated that nearly 40 per cent of respondents found all of the female candidates for US President “just not likeable” and many are drawing an inference from this that they may not be electable.

Never mind the fact that President, Donald Trump is widely disliked, or that Hillary Clinton, who also struggled with likeability, won the popular vote in 2016.

Women continue to be dogged by the issue.

Advice on improving your likeability abounds, including everything from the basics of good manners, showing interest in co-workers and being a good listener, to behaviours that are highly gendered, like being “kind and gentle, not critical”.

They also serve to reinforce gender stereotypes and potentially undermine your authority.

If likeability for men means someone you want to have a beer with, for women it seems to be code for non-threatening, helpful and attractive.

Maybe it’s time to reject the premise of likeability and acknowledge that, as Stanford researcher Marianne Cooper says, “for women leaders, likeability and success hardly go hand-in-hand”.

What if we stopped worrying so much about being liked?

Excessive concern with being liked is crippling for leaders.

It leads to inauthenticity and playing it safe.

When leaders are driven by others’ regard for them, they operate from the “socialised mind” – Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan’s term for the stage of adult development in which their identity depends on meeting external expectations and values.

This approach can be effective up to a point, but it dooms them to be constantly reactive to others who, in essence, dictate their identity and constrain their behaviour.

More effective and authentic leadership comes from Kegan’s “self-authoring mind”.

Individuals who lead from the self-authoring form of mind create and refine their own values and expectations.

They are aware of their impact on others but are not driven by it.

They are not overly concerned with being liked.

Okay, I know we live in a real world in which the deck is stacked against powerful women, and there are very real consequences for women who are deemed unlikeable.

As Cooper noted, 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.”

“As descriptions like ‘Ice Queen’ and ‘Ballbuster’ can attest, we are deeply uncomfortable with powerful women.”

When women and men do exactly the same things, women pay a penalty in how much they are liked that men do not pay.

But you also pay a penalty if, in the words of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “you twist yourself into shapes to make yourself more likeable”.

The author of We Should All Be Feminists rejects being overly concerned with avoiding giving offence.

The fact is, you simply can’t control whether someone else likes you or not, and if you try too hard, you risk your authenticity.

I am not advocating for disregarding your impact on others, but I believe the risks are greater if you allow your behaviour to be driven by whether you are liked.

What to do instead?

Here are some guidelines on how to navigate the likeability minefield:

Focus on influence, not control.

You cannot control whether others like you, but you can influence their thinking and behaviour.

This involves building relationships, understanding your constituents and including their interests in your vision, strategy and decisions to bring them along.

Create connection.

Common humanity is a powerful foundation for leadership and relationship.

This means expressing care for people and seeking to understand what motivates them.

Listen to others’ stories and share yours, including your vulnerability and your aspirations.

Stay in integrity.

Maintaining trust is an essential aspect of leadership and success.

Stand up for your values.

Speak consistently, directly (no gossip), and unarguably.

Keep your word and take responsibility for your actions and avoid defensiveness and blame.

Remember: It’s not about you.

This is true in more ways than one.

First, much of the battle you are fighting to be successful as a woman is taking place on an uneven playing field.

The unconscious biases that others bring to the table are not personal, so try not to internalise when people don’t like you.

And second, whatever you are working on is bigger than you, so when possible, take your ego out of the equation and practise humility.

Do not make yourself smaller.

Being humble does not mean being meek.

In order 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, decisive and let your voice be heard.

This approach will allow you to create relationships that are based on connection, trust, and shared vision, which are a much stronger foundation that just being liked.

* Hanna Clements-Hart is an executive coach. She tweets at @hannachart. Her website is hannahartleadership.com.

This article first appeared at www.forbes.com

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