Why Being Likable Never Works
Just about everyone wants to be liked. That’s not just human nature but a survival mechanism that’s been hardwired into the brain chemistry of a wide range of social animals going back millions of years.
With all the hype over personal branding, employee engagement, and social networking, it’s not surprising that the pursuit of likability is top of mind for many of you. And that is unfortunate.
When you try to get people to like you, it never works because it's disingenuous. In all likelihood you'll be perceived as desperate, selfish, and manipulative. And that can definitely backfire.
I arrived at that conclusion by raising and answering some important questions that nobody ever seems to ask:
1. What does it really mean to be liked by your stakeholders – employees, customers, and investors – and how relevant is likability in business?
2. Can changing your behavior in order to be liked really work or is there perhaps a more effective way to achieve successful relationships?
3. Since we no longer live in caves, how important is likability in our modern connected world, especially with respect to online social networks?
First, let me explain why we all have this need to be liked.
Many animals evolved as social creatures because a societal structure increases longevity while individuals isolated from the group have a lower survival rate. As a result, strength and safety in numbers is one of a handful of survival imperatives that strongly influence our behavior, to this day.
But in time, humans have diversified, our intelligence has evolved, and being outcast from the group is no longer a death sentence. On the contrary, our business leaders actually include innovators who think differently, break from the status quo, and create new and better ways of doing things. They are the outcasts.
It should come as no surprise that some of the greatest business leaders of our time are not exactly the nicest people you’d want to meet. For every likable character like Richard Branson, Herb Kelleher, or John Mackey you’ll find a Bill Gates, Andy Grove, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, or Mark Zuckerberg at the opposite end of the likability spectrum.
Having worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs and executives in dozens of boardrooms, I can tell you that the question of likability never comes up. There are lots of reasons for that. One is human diversity. Everyone is different and likability is uniquely subjective to each human pair.
Besides, we don’t work with people we like; we like working with people we can count on to get the job done with minimal friction. We like working with people who are straightforward and consistent. We like working with people who are smart and savvy. We like working with people who are ethical. We like working with people who give respect when it’s earned and genuine feedback when it’s needed.
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What makes an effective leadership team – or any team, for that matter – is when the players can work together to make smart decisions, execute, and achieve common goals. If boards needed everyone to like each other for that to happen, we’d have no functioning management teams.
Contrary to popular dogma, likability has no actionable relevance because it’s not a cause but an effect. It’s earned as a result of consistent behavior that’s integral to your personality, upbringing, and values. It’s a function of how you genuinely interact with others and handle relationships. By the time you reach adulthood, it’s part of you.
Moreover, if you try to get people to like you – on an individual basis or en masse – it will come across as desperate, disingenuous, and selfish because that’s exactly what it is. When you attempt to manipulate how others feel about you, that’s called controlling and narcissistic behavior. And sooner or later, it will backfire.
Social networks are no different. Relationships have a natural course. They start out superficial and deepen as the number and quality of interactions increase. That’s what determines how we feel about one another. Until you really get to know someone, the question of whether you like him or not has no real relevance.
Instead of trying to be liked or likable, strive to build successful relationships. The best way to do that is to know yourself, be yourself, and genuinely seek to understand others for some mutual benefit. That’s all there is to it. Everything else will be determined over the natural course of each relationship.
Everyone wants to be liked, but trying to be likable will not get you there ... and it will likely backfire.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.