The Crippling Effects of Likability

Hello there. It’s been a minute (more like 86,400 to be more precise and less cliché), but I’m back and better than ever. Those readers who don’t know me on a personal level are likely unable to sense the sarcasm, but trust me, it’s there. The truth is, the start of 2020 caught me by surprise (hence the major radio silence from my neck of the woods). Work had me traveling to a new city, I was buried in grad school minutia (IYKYK), and most importantly, underwent three near-death experiences. For those morbidly curious readers, these include: fell off a chairlift snowboarding for the first time; almost suffocated from a Lyft driver’s farts (which he emitted while simultaneously attempting to flirt with me?); and slipped from the very top to the very bottom of a staircase in the house I grew up in (zero alcohol involved), and no, clearly I hadn’t gotten used to the incline.

All jokes aside, life tends to be super messy, and those who are seemingly leading perfect ones are either faking through social media (as 99.9999% of us do) or have it all figured out, which, let’s be real, none of us do. This observation leads me to conclude that the remaining .0001% also carry the “everything’s great even though I almost quit my job five minutes ago” (*cue fake smile*) façade, but are simply averse to flaunting such veneers on social media. To stand in solidarity with any non-delusional humans, who are in fact aware of their not-having-it-together-ness, I decided not to make any resolutions, because I figured, like 92% of new year’s resolution-ers, I too, would fail by January 12th. Yes, that is the statistically-proven percentage of failures, and most common failure date for new year’s resolution-ers (excluding January 1st, which most seemingly overlook as the first date of the new year). No judgment, though – doing anything remotely related to exercise and/or excluding comfort food after a wild night out, is not my jam either.

I did allow January to pass by without a specific resolution in mind, yet I vowed to allow myself both the grit and the grace to start a resolution at any moment. Humanity tends to seek an arbitrary rationale to begin working towards a goal or eliminate detrimental habits. Whether it’s a new year or decade, a birthday, an anniversary, or a simple “I’ll do this tomorrow,” now never seems to be an opportune time to resolve for a better life (except possibly after a terrible hangover, when we promptly resolve to give up drinking forever). I began to ponder why anyone ought to wait for an excuse to make their life better. If you’re unhappy in a relationship, there will never be a good time to end it. If you’re hoping to confront a work bully, there will never be a good day to do so. If you’re looking for a time to make your diet healthier or exercise more, I can assure you that now is the best time (unless you have the looming COVID-19 – perhaps skip the exercise for now). Bad joke.

My latest spontaneous resolution concerns likability. I think I’ve been subconsciously aware of my tendency to seek approval from others for quite some time, but only recently recognized how immensely draining, mentally unhealthy, and overtly sexist this practice is. Why the ‘S-word’? Well, statistics demonstrate (meaning various studies back what I’m about to say) that society expects women to be agreeable and friendly, and thus, from a very young age, girls and boys alike are socialized as such. For those who identify as female, I implore you to think about the last time you forced yourself to laugh at something that wasn’t remotely funny, nervously smiled at someone even though they subtly insulted or disrespected you, or abjectly agreed with something you were ardently opposed to, or simply removed yourself from the conversation for fear of altercation. For those who identify as male, have you ever considered a female a bitch for directly asserting her opinions, perhaps without a smile, or figured a female colleague was in a bad mood because their written communications didn’t include emojis or exclamation marks? It’s okay to recognize our unconscious biases; well all have them. The question is, what do we do about them?

A few weeks back, during a financial planning meeting in the workplace, one of my coworkers asked if I was alright. Upon saying “Yes,” with an intonation imploring the rationale behind his question, he responded, “Oh, okay, you just weren’t smiling.” Upon looking around the room, all of my male counterparts had demeanors that reflected my own (aside from some added facial hair). Also, to be frank, I think anyone caught smiling in a financial planning meeting is mischievously scheming something unethical. On another occasion, upon using facts to defend an argument I was making in opposition another of my male colleague’s agenda, he paused, and asked “Are you okay?” to which I responded, “Yes, why?” He replied, “You’re being a bit snippy.” I did not apologize, even though my brain is wired to do so, but instead hoped he would ultimately recognize through the insufferable ensuing silence, that my direct and factual statement mirrored the tone of those made by his male colleagues, though his reactions to both sides were completely distinct (aka sexist and misogynistic).

As Marianne Cooper wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “What is really going on…is that high-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success—and specifically the behaviors that created that success—violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave. Women are expected to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing.” This norm is far more detrimental than simply being questioned or lectured on a certain mood that we are perceived to be in. Women are oftentimes reviewed more so on likability than they are for the actual quality of their deliverables, and therefore are not aware of the areas of improvement or development in regards to their performance. On the contrary, intelligent and high-performing women are statistically rated as less likable, and their performance is reflected as such, given a much higher premium is placed on likability in female performance than any other factor (e.g., efficient, diligent, technical, etc.) In regard to a report from the Catalyst Group surrounding the “double-bind dilemma” women face in the workplace, Carrie Kerpin writes, “Women leaders are perceived as competent or liked, but rarely both. If we live up to gender stereotypes of being kind and submissive, then we’re regarded as nice but incompetent. Yet if we behave in ways that are typically viewed as ‘masculine,’ then we’re competent but unlikable.” I do not consider myself conflict-averse by any means, instead, I’ve been told that I have confrontational tendencies. Shocking? Don’t answer that. Even so, I still am uncomfortable with the concept of others not liking me, and I tend to take it to heart far more than I should. I’ve found, however, that while likability is incredibly subjective, the quality of one’s work far less-so. If we continue to use facts and work products as substantiation of our performance, our ability to move forward is far more tangible than a particular individual’s mood-dependent opinion of you.

Outside of the workplace, I find these trends to be just as common, in that women place so much energy on being likeable. I have a plethora of experiences to substantiate this claim, as I’m sure most of us do. What caption will attract the widest audience and which photo will merit the highest number of likes? Will what I’m about to say disagree with others’ opinions? Why did they unfollow me? Did I come across too harsh in that text? One vivid experience that exacerbates this inherent issue comes to mind. During the summer, I enjoy running around the city of Boston. From time to time, I hear a whistle or an inappropriate comment from a passerby which I always respond to by running just a tiny bit faster – one, because I’m angry, and two, because any man that still thinks it’s okay to cat call and stare animalistically at women in the year of 2020 is inherently unsafe. One day, my motivational running playlist conveniently decided to change songs, just as a man in the street emitted his mating call (by the way, men, please tell me about a time when this has actually worked). I began to speed up, choosing to focus on my pounding lungs and not tripping on the Boston cobblestone, as opposed to these grotesque, vomit-worthy sounds and stares. During the (seemingly excessively long) song change, I heard him call me a bitch, presumably for not acknowledging his presence. For a second, I actually wondered if I was the rude one, and a part of me actually began to automatically turn to smile apologetically to this man, that is, a stranger who was looking at me like a piece of meat and was harassing on my afternoon jog, (which, by the way, is not endorsed by the law, but also not illegal yet).* I fought these instincts, refusing to smile, and thought even more-so of how these innate habits, needs, and fears of ours must be re-wired in our brains, not simply for social and professional reasons, but also for our safety.

*Another post to come on laws surrounding harassment in the street

I’ve learned that when it comes to all relationships, people are going to love you or hate you, and none of it will have to do with you. Thus, I refuse to let myself be defined by others’ opinions of me, as firstly, those opinions are none of my business, and secondly, attempting to influence others’ opinions will leave me mentally broke. While I don’t feel there is anything wrong with being likable, and in fact think that likability of all professionals would result in better businesses and governments, I do believe that as it is defined today, likability determining a woman’s success or failure is preposterous. If we are going to use likability as a factor to evaluate women, we must redefine what it means. For me, someone who’s likable leads with integrity, defends their dreams and ideas to the core, and remains loyal to their peers. Having made it to this point in the article, how will you redefine likability both professionally and personally?

In closing, not a single one of the female leaders we see today followed the rules or agreed with everyone to be where she is today, and she probably was liked by far and few. Albert Enstein once said, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” If we hope to be leaders in any field, have a voice in any place, or live the lives we wish to live, we must all stand up for what is right, even if we stand alone. Regardless of how boisterous the opinions of others may be, they don’t decide who you can be. So, stop wasting so much energy tending to the thoughts of others as you attempt to effect change in the world; instead, focus on what you think of the world, and why it needs your change.

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