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How to be respected AND liked

I recently read a few interesting articles about the “likeability/competence quotient” and why likeability matters at work. The first article stated that non-threatening likeability is more important than respect early on in a career, while career progression brings an inverse progression of competence and likeability. The second article much more broadly stated that likeability is becoming much more important in the workplace.

This topic seemed particularly relevant lately, particularly in light of the termination of Jill Abramson as the Executive Editor of the New York Times. Articles reported that her brusque behavior in the newsroom as well as her request for a raise so that her compensation was equal to that of her male predecessor were the cause(s) for her termination. It’s hard to imagine that a “brusque” male editor asking for a similar compensation increase, or even one who exhibited a strong management style in the newsroom, would have been fired. More likely, he would have been counseled by his boss to “tone it down” and maybe even given a coach to work on his leadership style. And, he probably would have been given a raise as well. Of course, we only know what is reported in the news about this fact set, but still it is hard for me to get my head around a man being fired for being “brusque,” “asking for a raise,” and trying his very best to put out an internationally acclaimed news journal. But, this does tell us something, perhaps, about the balance between likeability and respect (especially for women leaders).

Not surprisingly, when I googled, I found a few studies that have looked at workplace dynamics and whether people would rather work with a likeable incompetent or a competent jerk. (Likeable incompetent won over competent jerk, although the likeable and competent worker won over all other categories.) Other studies have shown that likable people are more apt to be hired, get help at work, get useful information from others and have mistakes forgiven. Companies may also hire likeable workers to influence colleagues and lead change within an organization. These studies were gender neutral.

It seems counterintuitive that being nice is a more important workplace skill than being competent. (Maybe this is indicative of my workplace style more than anything.) And, I would further assert that trying to be everyone’s friend in the office is bound to backfire. The studies refute my theories, though, and show that people would rather work with someone nice than someone not nice (all other things being equal).

So, can any conclusions be drawn based on the data and the conundrum? Does it matter whether you are entry level or along a path in your career? Here are my conclusions, from entry level to senior, which are based on nothing, scientific or otherwise, except my opinion.

  1. Competence matters.
    Competence is the ante to get in the game. It is expected and assumed at any career level. That said, even those lacking certain skills or experience sometimes make headway in organizations, either through a winning personality or other factors.

  2. Should you aim for respect over likeability?
    Once you are considered competent in your field, you should gain others’ respect. Typically this happens as you gain experience and trust because of your competence. Of course, when you gain the respect of your colleagues, and make friends, consider it as an added bonus.

  3. Is there a time to focus on niceness?
    See #2. You’ve achieved some successes in your career, including that you’ve gained your team’s respect. But the coffee machine chatter is that you are not well liked and few actually want to be on your team. Is now the time to focus on niceness? Maybe it is. I guess for Jill Abramson, in retrospect, maybe it was.

  4. Establish and join networking groups and seek out mentors and advisors.
    At any and every time and place in your career, establish “safe” groups or people with whom you can share that which you may not want to share with coworkers or subordinates (the “judgment-free zone”).

  5. One size does not fit all.
    Points 1-3 are generalizations. You must decide based on the situation at hand when to emphasize competence over likeability, or vice versa.

All of that being said, why can’t you achieve competence and respect along with likeability—why should they be mutually exclusive? One article noted that the behaviors most important to a speaker’s likability are making eye contact, smiling naturally when you talk and varying your tone of voice to convey warmth and enthusiasm. Easy, right?

The bottom line is that we are in control of our actions and behaviors, and can make conscious decisions about how to act towards others. I hope these thoughts will help you, regardless of your path.

As always, thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment.