The Surprising Truth About Likability
Being a jerk may not be such a liability after all.
Apparently, I’m a jerk. No kidding. I just read an article about behaviors that are supposed to make you less likable and hold you back, and of the 10 listed, I’ve been guilty of at least eight at one time or another. And just 1 in 2,000 unlikable leaders are considered effective, so it says.
By that measure, I must be pretty miserable and destitute, right? Not exactly. I’ve actually had an extraordinary thirtysomething-year career as a senior executive in the tech industry and a Silicon Valley-based management consultant. And I’ve been married to a wonderful woman for 27 years.
Don’t get me wrong; my life’s far from perfect. I admit to being kind of a jerk sometimes. But by any measure, things have worked out pretty well for me. Life is good. The question is, how in the world did that happen?
Am I the 1 in 2,000 unlikeable leader who happens to be good at his job? Is my wife a terrible judge of character? Are all my friends jerks too? Don’t be silly.
Some of the most successful business leaders of our time were anything but likable as CEOs: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Andy Grove, among them. And they all had long-term marriages, as well. Come to think of it, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Larry Page don’t exactly have winning personalities, either.
So why all the hype over likability? Simple: It’s appealing. Everyone wants to be liked. That’s why the “like” button is so popular on social media. It’s natural to seek approval from others. We all want to have friends, loved ones and coworkers we get along with. It also speaks to the eternal question, why can’t we all just get along?
Look, we don’t all get along because that’s not how the human condition works. We’re not a utopian race of uniform drones with common viewpoints and behavioral traits. We’re remarkably diverse. We’re remarkably flawed. And let’s be honest with ourselves: We all have issues. All things considered, it’s a miracle that any of us get along at all.
The problem with likability as a goal or metric is that it’s highly subjective: One person’s jerk is another person’s loving spouse, best friend or great boss. It's also highly situational: Everyone is a jerk some of the time, depending on the situation and how they’re treated by others. I know that some of my closest friends didn’t like me at first, but that changed in time. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences.
There is no such thing as an objective measure of likability. Just as with beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder. It has absolutely nothing to do with happiness, relationships or success in business. If that’s what you’re after, here are four things you might consider striving for, instead of trying desperately to be liked:
As a former marketing executive, I can tell you that the key to brand marketing is to deliver on your brand’s promise. To accomplish that, a company can’t try to be what it’s not. It’s brand identity must be a genuine reflection of its capabilities. It’s the same with people. If you want to be successful, your best bet is to try to understand yourself, figure out what you do best, and become the best version of the genuine you.
Related: 10 Behaviors of Genuine People
Likability is so subjective that you end up twisting your behavior in a hundred different ways to meet others’ expectations. That’s just crazy. In business, people need to know who you really are so they know they can trust and depend on you. Say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say you’re going to do. The goal is to be credible, not likable.
Do the right thing.
There’s usually a big difference between doing what you think will make people happy and doing what’s right. That’s why the approval rating of the U.S. Congress has been so low for so long. Instead of doing what’s best for the people, they pander to their base to get reelected. The result? Perpetual gridlock. That’s a perfect example of the lack of correlation between trying to be liked and achieving results.
Make good choices.
It’s popular to have high aspirations and want to change the world, but that begins and ends with simple decisions you make on a daily basis. Life is full of options and opportunities, but if you think about it, the only things you really have control over in this world are the choices you make and the actions you take.
Instead of worrying about what people think of you, focus on knowing yourself, meeting your commitments, doing the right thing and making smart decisions. That’s the way to achieve long-term success and happiness.
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.