How to Combat “The Likeability Trap” at Work

Do you worry about whether you’re likeable? Although we’re all conditioned to say that we don’t care about what other people think of us, the truth is that most of us will wonder about this at some point or another. Especially when thinking about our work relationships which are so closely tied to our careers and livelihoods. Of course, we all want to be liked, but at what cost?

This topic is explored in the episode of Life Kit, “What ‘Likeability’ Really Means in The Workplace.” Special guest Alicia Menendez, author of The Likeability Trap: How to Break Free and Succeed As You Are, gets into all the ways that worrying about likeability holds us back. Whether someone likes you or not is highly subjective, and oftentimes has nothing to do with you and everything to do with that person’s experiences and worldview. She explains, “Likeability is a moving target; an invisible scorecard that we internalize but that those around us actually fill out.”

This is particularly a problem for women since we’re socialized at a young age to be agreeable and accommodating. We’re taught to think of ourselves in relation to others which can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we’re attuned to people’s needs and emotions, but on the other hand, this can be a problem when we start to feel governed by the needs of others. We can’t be our authentic selves if we’re constantly trying to ascertain how to be amiable towards others.

Many of us have gone to great lengths to be likeable, maybe even unconsciously. Menendez mentions altering her behavior or appearance in order to be liked. This can manifest in a number of ways, including dressing a certain way, subduing your hair/makeup, silencing yourself, subduing your personality, or avoiding your native language. Many people of color and women of color are familiar with the tapdancing that comes with trying to mold yourself to fit a workplace that is predominantly white and oblivious to other cultures.

This is more than an internal feeling, it can also affect real-world success. Menendez explains that any time a woman advocates for herself in the workplace, she has to stop and ask herself if what she’s getting is worth the potential tradeoff in likeability. If you’re a woman from a marginalized community, those feelings are even more amplified. It’s about who is seen as a person on their way to success.

Likeability can also be used as a catch-all for other biases. For example, the commonly held stereotype that Latinas are humble could lead an executive to determine that you’re not leadership material. Or when a Black woman is labeled as “aggressive” when the same behavior from a white man is labeled as passionate (think Serena Williams vs. John McEnroe, for example). Menendez calls this the “Goldilocks Conundrum.” Women are either too hot or too cold. They’re seen as not having what it takes to succeed, or on the polar end, are seen as too much. It creates a dynamic where we can’t win no matter what we do.

Challenging your internal likeability trap

How do you begin to escape your internal likeability trap? It begins with our overthinking certain interactions. Have you ever done or said something at work and then laid awake at night thinking about it? Ruminating on whether what you said made you look stupid, or incompetent, or whether people think you’re a bitch now? It starts with identifying that you’re overthinking. Like all of our negative internal dialogue, it starts with catching yourself in the act.

Menendez recommends reminding yourself that it’s all perception. Speak it out loud, then it’s out there and it’s over. If you keep to yourself it festers and continues to roll around in your brain. You have to acknowledge the act in a non-judgmental way, acknowledge it’s not real life, and let it go.

For those of us with intersectional identities, it also means showing up authentically. You don’t have to share your entire self but you should feel comfortable being yourself. It takes so much energy to constantly omit or filter parts of yourself when you could be using that energy to further your personal and professional growth.

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How to combat the likeability trap at work

In addition to working on your internal challenges with likeability, you should also be cognizant of external likeability biases. What do you do if you’re facing a problem at work that you feel is being driven by someone who simply doesn’t like you?

  • Push for concrete feedback – If you receive criticism that dramatically conflicts with what you know to be true, ask the person for a reference point. For example, if your boss tells you you’re too aggressive, ask them compared to whom? Ask them to point out a person that you should be modelling. It causes the person to pause and consider whether or not they’re being guided by bias/subjectivity or an objective truth.
  • Ask them to connect the criticism to how it’s affecting your work – Force the person to explain what they perceive as your style and how that’s connected to the results. For example, if you’ve been told that you’re “too aggressive” can they point out specific incidence where this aggression affected real-world work? Say, “Can you connect the dots for me between how this is actually showing up in the work that I do?” Of course, when you do this, you have to be open to the possibility there’s indeed a connection.
  • Find your people – Do you have a circle of trust at work? Individuals that you can rely on as sounding boards to tell you whether the criticism you received might be true, or is completely off-base. These are folks who truly see you and understand your value and skills. These individuals are crucial to your success because they are the ones who hype you up, tell you when you’re wrong, and also tell you when someone is gaslighting you. Invaluable!
  • Know when it’s time to leave – If you find yourself constantly having to defend yourself or address somebody’s dislike of you, at some point you have to evaluate whether the job is a good fit at all. Women in particular can overstay their time at a company because they want to make it work. I’ve fallen into this trap myself. I’ve been in situations where I thought I could change the company culture and have spent years spinning my wheels for nothing. Never again. In the words of a wise man: You’ve got to know when to hold ’em. Know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away. And know when to run.
  • Push back for each other – When you hear critical feedback about your co-workers, challenge the person’s viewpoint. For example, if a co-worker tells you another co-worker is “indecisive,” challenge their thinking on it. Are they indecisive or are they deliberate because they don’t want to make a careless decision? Is the person “emotional” or passionate? As Menendez puts it, we need to table-bang for other women and if you have the ability to put other women up for projects or promotions, you should!
  • Identify opportunities for leadership to make changes – One important thing that Menendez notes is that you can’t take the entire burden on yourself. Leadership needs to prioritize building a workplace where people feel comfortable showing up and being themselves. This can manifest itself in company policies and procedures. For example, the review-giving process. In a culture where likeability bias is a problem, getting a review from one person may not be as helpful or productive as getting multiple reviews from different team members. A 360 review process is a great way to combat likeability bias because you can see how your work is received across a spectrum of individuals.

I hope this post has been helpful! Below is the full podcast episode, which I highly recommend listening to. It’s great to know that others out there struggle with this notion and that there are ways to pull yourself out of the trap. Best of luck as you navigate the toxic workplace waters. Namaste!