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Leadership / Human Resources

Likeability Matters: Why First Impressions Count In Business

Likeability Matters: Why First Impressions Count In Business
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- Guest Writer
Chairman, Virtugroup
8 min read

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What are the traits required to be a business success? A capacity for hard work, certainly. An appetite for risk, no doubt. Determination and a resilience to setbacks, absolutely. What about likeability?

Plenty of entrepreneurs out there will have grown up in the belief that “nice guys finish last,” that business is no place for the weak, and, therefore, you have to put on a tough exterior if you are going to come out on top. This may have been true once upon a time, but attitudes are changing, and the value of traits such as empathy, understanding, and self-awareness is rising all the time.

Business is, and always has been, dependent on building relationships, and yes, first impressions count.

Whether you’re trying to secure funding, make a sale, persuade talent to come and work for you, or, indeed, any aspect of business where you’re dealing with people, how you come across makes all the difference. Once that might have meant a serious, no-nonsense personality was required, but today, research has shown that people want to feel comfortable and assured in your company. To quote the old sales adage, “people buy people,” and your personality is one of the most valuable assets you have. So, it’s important that you know how to use it. 

Let’s define “likeability” (and what it’s worth) 
Research from the University of Glasgow suggests that people make a judgement on an individual’s trustworthiness after just a few hundred milliseconds of first hearing their voice. You don’t have long, so you need to be prepared. Knowing what makes you likeable, and, therefore, trustworthy can give you the edge.

Likeability, in entrepreneurial terms, encompasses those essential values of openness, transparency, trustworthiness, and reliability, along with a certain magnetism and an interest in others. It drives the ability to form and build on networks and alliances, exercise persuasiveness, gain credibility, and attract and retain talent.

Academic research suggests that an individual’s emotional intelligence (EQ) is at least as important as their general intelligence and technical skills when it comes to being equipped for business success– with some suggesting it’s actually twice as important. It is critical in increasing perceptions of reliability, dependability and trustworthiness and in building alliances. In short, if you score highly on the EQ chart, people will want to do business with you.

Much of the research to date has focused on identifying character traits that are common to entrepreneurs, but more recent studies have shown flaws in trying to understand entrepreneurial success by character trait alone, without taking EQ into account. In particular, identifying common character traits doesn’t always help people develop the qualities they already possess, added to which not all entrepreneurs show the same array of traits.

The good news is that, contrary to popular belief, likeability can be learnt.

That means it isn’t dependent on character, nor is it predicated on whether you’re gregarious or shy. It’s based entirely on your ability to recognize and control your emotions, and to understand and influence the emotions of others. It’s not hard to see how that could give you an edge in business. 

Related: How To Get The Most Out Of These Five Employee Types

How to develop your EQ
Research into EQ centers around four principal areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness (awareness of others, or empathy) and social skills (management of one’s relationship with others). Entrepreneurs need to identify and develop those four pillars of emotional intelligence in order to learn and develop the emotional competencies or attributes that help to make them likeable.

According to Dr. Cary Cherniss, a professor of psychology and a leading expert on emotional intelligence: ‘The emotional competencies are linked to, and based on, emotional intelligence. A certain level of emotional intelligence is necessary to learn the emotional competencies.” So, let’s look more closely at those four pillars and how to develop the likeability you need for success. 

1. Self-awareness Writing in the International Journal of Organisational Analysis, Bernadette Cross and Anthony Travaglione define self-awareness as “knowing one’s internal states, preferences, resources and intuitions.” It also, they say, involves having a realistic idea of your own abilities and a well-grounded sense of self-confidence. Cross and Travaglione’s study of five successful Australian entrepreneurs, entitled The Untold Story: Is The Entrepreneur Of The 21st Century Defined By Emotional Intelligence, found that all possessed high levels of self-awareness, particularly in understanding their own strengths and weaknesses. Self-awareness gives the entrepreneur a grounded self-confidence through the ability to recognize one’s own feelings and assess them objectively. That ability for realistic assessment also proves valuable when it comes to problem-solving. 

2. Self-management Trustworthiness is one of the most important ingredients to a successful startup. So say Kenneth Rhee and Rebecca White in The Emotional Intelligence of Entrepreneurs, published in the Journal Of Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Rhee and White studied 161 successful entrepreneurs and found particularly high scores in the area of self-management when compared to the norm. And trustworthiness was ranked the highest of all competencies.

“Without building and having trust, entrepreneurs might have difficulty building the support network necessary to ensure the success of their startup business,” they concluded. Working on your self-management will, therefore, bolster levels of integrity and honesty, leading to greater trust and wider networks.

In Emotional Intelligence: Does It Influence Decision Making and Role Efficacy? research suggested that entrepreneurs who effectively master self-management have the ability to keep disruptive emotions in check, maintain high standards of honesty, and develop conscientiousness by taking responsibility for their performance.

Self-management is also crucial for avoiding task interference and delaying gratification in order to pursue goals, but it also encompasses the ability to adapt and innovate– essential attributes as a business grows and changes. 

3. Social awareness and empathy Social awareness is characterized by sensitivity towards the emotions and needs of others but also influences organizational awareness and service orientation. It’s a highly beneficial competency insofar as it allows business leaders to understand other people’s point of view and arrive at a deeper understanding of what motivates them. In Cross and Travaglione’s study, the entrepreneurs they surveyed not only demonstrated exceptionally high levels of understanding of others but also excelled in their understanding of non-verbal expressions of emotion (body language). This constitutes yet another vital tool for entrepreneurs as they try to establish what makes other people tick, especially when a large degree of communication in face-to-face meetings is non-verbal.

In Emotional Intelligence: What It Is And Why It Matters, Cary Cherniss states that researchers have known for years that empathy is directly linked to success and that “people who were best at identifying others’ emotions were more successful in their work, as well as in their social lives.” If we learn to read people’s body language as well as listen to their voices, we can develop a deeper understanding of their emotions and adapt our behavior accordingly. 

Related: The Five Stages Of Your Business Lifecycle: Which Phase Are You In?

4. Social skills and managing relationships with others Often referred to as the management of others’ emotions, this skill is crucial to an entrepreneur’s success as it governs influence, negotiation and persuasive skills. As the Emotional Intelligence: Does It Influence Decision Making and Role Efficacy study by S. P. Chauhan and Daisy Chauhan states, social skills are “fundamental to emotional intelligence. They include the ability to induce desirable responses in others by using effective diplomacy to persuade.” Social skills encompass effective communication, leadership and the propensity to build alliances by nurturing instrumental relationships.

Amongst the 161 participants in the Rhee and White study, all scored highly when compared to the norm (with the interesting exception of conflict management), while the Cross and Travaglione study found that the ability to negotiate and persuade was “considerably strong” among the five successful entrepreneurs. In the Journal of Small Business and Entrepreneurship, Ronit Yitshaki’s research shows that “significant relations are found between entrepreneurs’ emotional intelligence and entrepreneurs’ charismatic-inspirational behaviors.”

Understanding the role of EQ in business
Whilst academic studies must by definition draw their conclusions from existing entrepreneurs, it’s not only possible but highly desirable for would-be entrepreneurs to develop and enhance their emotional intelligence. As Kenneth Rhee says, “teamwork and collaboration depend upon trustworthiness and good communications skills. Fortunately, all of these aspects of entrepreneurial leadership can be enhanced through focus and skill development, and thus these findings can prove useful to entrepreneurs.”

By focusing on these four areas, entrepreneurs can develop the ability to recognize emotions and put them to good use to maximize their business performance. Managing those emotions more effectively will help to develop better relationships and solve problems, build credibility and earn trust. The help is out there- now it’s time to focus, develop, and get personal.

Related: How To Be A Better Boss


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