Moving Beyond Likability: 5 Principles For Women Leaders That Men Can Learn From Too

Moving Beyond Likability: 5 Principles For Women Leaders That Men Can Learn From Too

This post first appeared on Forbes.

Everywhere you look, women are rocking it. This year saw a dramatic rise in the number of women CEOs in the Fortune 500, from 24 (4.8%) in 2018 to 33 (6.6%) in 2019—still low but improving. 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 Congress, and we saw four women candidates participate in the latest Democratic presidential debate. We also witnessed some tremendously competent and powerful female career diplomats—notably Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill—testify in the recent impeachment inquiry hearings. 

And yet, “the likability trap is still a thing.” A recent New York Times/Siena College poll indicated that nearly 40% of respondents found all of the female candidates for president “just not likable” and many are drawing an inference from this that they may not be electable. Never mind the fact that President Trump is widely disliked, or that Hillary Clinton, who also struggled with likability, won the popular vote in 2016. Women continue to be dogged by the issue. 

Advice on improving your likability abounds, including everything from the basics of good manners, like saying “good morning,” showing interest in co-workers and being a good listener, to behaviors that are highly gendered, like being “kind and gentle, not critical,” and “keep the kitchen cleaner than you keep your own.” Ugh. While these latter two behaviors may make people like you, they also serve to reinforce gender stereotypes and potentially undermine your authority. If likability 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 likability and acknowledge that, as Stanford researcher Marianne Cooper says, “for women leaders, likability 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—saying what people want to hear rather than what is true for you—and playing it safe. That’s not going to cut it for leaders in a world of increasing demands and complexity. When leaders are driven by other’s regard for them, they operate from the “socialized 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 behavior. 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 unlikable.  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. In fact, we often don’t really like them.” When women and men do exactly the same things, women pay a penalty in how much they are liked that men do not pay. And the price is even higher for assertive women of color, who often find themselves caught in a limiting angry black woman stereotype.

But you also pay a penalty if, in the words of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “you twist yourself into shapes to make yourself more likable.” The author of We Should All Be Feminists rejects being overly concerned with avoiding giving offense. 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 behavior to be driven by whether you are liked or not. What to do instead? Here are some guidelines on how to navigate the likability minefield:

  1. Focus on influence, not control. You cannot control if others like you, but you can influence their thinking and behavior. This involves building relationships, understanding your constituents and including their interests in your vision, strategy and decisions to bring them along.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Remember: It’s not about you. This is true in more ways than one.  First, much of the battle you are fighting to be a 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 internalize 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 practice humility. 
  5. 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 minimize 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.