The urge to be liked is a powerful force in this world: It can force you to rethink behavior, appearances, even relationships. But despite even the very best efforts, no one has a say in how much other people like them.
“Who we like is a deeply subjective thing,” says Alicia Menendez. “And what is tricky is that all of that is shaped by a lot of who we are, our markers of identity and the people that we’re interacting with, and how many of those markers line up.”
Menendez is a journalist, podcast creator and the author of The Likeability Trap. She says likeability is a moving target — an invisible scorecard that we internalize but that those around us fill out for us.
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And the stakes of that scorecard are even higher in the workplace. Because “any time you, as a woman, advocate for yourself in the workplace, you are asking yourself, ‘Is the thing that I am potentially getting worth the potential trade-off in likeability?’ ” says Menendez. “Because likeability isn’t just who sits next to you at lunch. It’s also about who is seen as a person who is on a path to success. And so those trade-offs are very real.”
ANDEE TAGLE: You open the book saying, “I have to admit something to you, something I hate to admit: it is very important to me that you like me.” Alicia, I felt simultaneously immediately sold and instantly attacked by that opening, because it resonated so deeply. And apparently it’s not just you and me that feel this way, right?
ALICIA MENENDEZ: No, it’s a lot of people. And it’s particularly pronounced for women and girls, because across cultures we socialize women and girls to think of ourselves in relation to others. Now, I think there is a piece of that that is a superpower, which is [that] we are attuned to what other people want and need.
Where it crosses over into being a challenge or a burden is when we are governed by what other people want or need, when we don’t feel that we can be our full, authentic selves [or] that we can show up in our entirety or complexity because we are trying to be amiable to other people. That is when it becomes a problem.
Yeah, something that really struck me is the idea that you presented that likeability can be used as a catchall for other biases as well. Like, we say likeability, but really people are saying …
A whole lot of things. I looked at likeability through the primary lens of gender, but that’s just one form of bias that shows up.
So, for example, a Black woman who shows up as assertive will often be read as aggressive or angry. For Latinas like myself, there are two different stereotypes we run into: either this idea that we are really humble and hard workers, but not necessarily leadership material, or we are vivacious and passionate like Sofía Vergara in Modern Family. But again, not someone you might have helming the ship. All of that just means that when someone says, “I don’t like you,” very often what they are saying is, “You did not meet my expectation of how a person like you is supposed to show up in the world.”
And I think part of what’s hard about that is that if someone just said that to you, then you’d be able to walk over to HR and report them. But a lot of this gets masked as “who I like” and “who I don’t like,” which flies right beneath the radar on a lot of the ways that we judge and call out bias.
It’s not HR-able …
It’s not HR-able, and it puts us in the constant position of having to ask ourselves, “Am I really not delivering the results? Am I really not up to the task? Or does this person have a bias against me that is manifesting in the way that we work together?” The capacity it takes to constantly be analyzing those questions is energy and time lost.
OK, so let’s talk specifics. Can you walk us through some of the likability traps you found women often get stuck in?
The biggest one that women run into is what I call the Goldilocks conundrum — you know, too warm, too cold. A woman, it seems, is never just right. As a woman, you will either get feedback that you are too warm: “Everyone likes you — just people don’t think you have what it takes.” And very often no one can tell you exactly what that is, but what they’re most often talking about is a perception of strength. And then a woman who is what we would perceive as strong, who asserts herself, who lobbies for things, will often be told that while she has what it takes to lead, she needs to tone it down lest she ruffle too many feathers. And what I think is particularly important to understand is that there are so many women like myself who have been given both sets of feedback, who have been told in some contexts that we are too warm and have been told in other contexts that we are too strong, which just really underlines how context[ual], specific and subjective all of this feedback is.
We’re also living in a moment where there is this premium placed on authenticity and authentic leadership. But if you are telling women that however they show up is not the right way to show up as a likeable leader, then they cannot possibly show up authentically as themselves. And then you add all these other markers of identity — race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability — and it becomes even more complicated.
What are some concrete steps that we can take in the workplace to combat these traps at work?
We can do a few things. We can push for more subjective, concrete feedback. One of my favorite pieces of advice was from executive coach Caterina Kostoula. And when one of her clients gets critical, subjective feedback, like, “Andee, you’re just too loud,” you ask, “Compared to whom? Can you point someone else out in the office to me that you would give that same piece of feedback to or someone who you think that I should be modeling?” And what that does is it creates this pause for the person who is giving the feedback to consider whether or not they are being guided by some sense of bias or some sense of subjectivity.
I think you also want to find your people. Find people who get you, who see you, who understand the inherent value of the skills that you bring, and who are able, when you do get this type of feedback, that you can go to and say, “Hey, does this sound like me?”
And then, this is dramatic, but I think people need to know when it’s time to leave. I think you need to know when the place that you work doesn’t align with your values and doesn’t see the potential that you bring in. I think there are a lot of us who believe that if we just work hard enough, then we can make it fit. And sometimes that fit isn’t there.
And what about the bigger picture? You know, these are great things that you can enact on a personal level. But as you mentioned before, dealing with likeability is much bigger than that. The problem is not just with women or with individuals, right?
No, absolutely not. This is about bias that gets shielded as a question of likeability. One of the things we can do is to push back for each other. When someone says that Jim is indecisive, I ask, “Is he indecisive or is he deliberate?” Because I don’t want to work with someone who’s indecisive, but I do want to work with someone who is deliberate. All of those words matter, and they in some ways matter most when we are able to call them out on others’ behalf.
Fundamentally, though, this is about people at the top being bought into this idea that if you want to have a high-functioning, results-oriented workplace, then you need to make sure that you are prioritizing building a workplace where people feel like they can show up as themselves. Now, I know that that can sound incredibly amorphous, but sometimes it’s as simple as in a meeting going around and making sure that everyone has a moment to give input. … And then a lot of it manifests in the way that people give and receive feedback. But it has to be a priority. And when it’s a pretend priority, everybody knows.