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Have you ever been told “Be assertive, but don’t be a bitch,” “Be a leader, but don’t be bossy,” “Be nice, but not too nice,” “You have a resting bitch face,” or “You seem like a pushover.” It’s a phenomenon that happens all too often: women put forward smart ideas and strong leadership skills, and are met with judgement about superficial traits related to their likability. Alicia Menendez, MSNBC host and this week’s guest on The Everygirl Podcast, names this phenomenon in her book, The Likeability Trap.
Being a woman in the workplace–especially in a leadership position–can feel like being constantly criticized for your metaphorical pantsuits when you’re actually saying pretty brilliant stuff. And whether it’s in the workplace or not, many of us are wired to want to be liked, just to find its an impossible feat. So what exactly is the likability trap, and what can we do to get out of it? Read on for Menendez’s advice for staying true to yourself in the workplace, and listen to this week’s episode of The Everygirl Podcast for more.
What is the likeability trap?
According to Menendez, the likeability trap doesn’t just refer to one single experience: in fact, she says women are likely to encounter three different kinds of likeability traps in their daily lives. The first is what she refers to as “the Goldilocks conundrum.” This means that women in leadership positions are often perceived as “never quite right”—that is, many female leaders are accused of being too warm, too welcoming, or too feminine, or, on the other side of the spectrum, too strong or too aggressive. In The Likeability Trap and on The Everygirl Podcast, Menendez highlights the fact that societal expectations for women are often quite different than the traits that are expected of a leader.
The second kind of likeability trap that Menendez identifies is something that has come up more recently, which is a constant call for authenticity. The problem with demanding authenticity is that, in the workplace especially, women are often asked to conform to so many variable traits already. “Sometimes it feels like being truly authentically ourselves runs the risk that people won’t see us as the leaders that we are,” Menendez said.
The third and final likeability trap is the ambition/likeability penalty, where women are actively labeled as less likable because they outwardly seek success. Menendez credits Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead for bringing this idea into the mainstream; it means that the more successful a woman becomes, the less people like her. In moments when a man might be labeled as a go-getter, women are often thought of as overly competitive. On The Everygirl Podcast, Menendez emphasizes that these three traps are all never-ending choices that women in the workplace have to make: between being warm or strong, a leader or authentic, ambitious or likable.
3 tips to overcoming the likeability trap for a more fulfilling career
1. Remember that the most important thing is whether you like them, not whether they like you
Just like with dating, it’s important to focus on how you feel, not how they might feel about you. How do you feel after you receive feedback from someone in your workplace? Do you feel empowered and excited to take a second shot at a project, or do you feel discouraged? These emotions matter and are valid, no matter what the feedback may be. Just like you wouldn’t keep giving chances to a romantic partner who was making you feel bad about yourself, there’s no reason to stick with a boss who doesn’t see your potential and inherent value. Surrounding yourself with people who make you feel comfortable expressing your core interests and existing as your truest self, both inside and outside the workplace, can liberate you from feeling like you have to conform to someone else’s expectations.
2. Be selective about the feedback you internalize, and don’t be afraid to push back
Unfortunately, there is a web of expectations created by men in the workplace that overlays all of the interactions that women have at work. For women of color in particular, the possibility of being accused of being “bossy” or “aggressive” when simply acting with the normal assertiveness of a good leader is high. On The Everygirl Podcast, Menendez urges women to question subjective feedback, especially if it is coded in language that is historically sexist or racist. “If you sit down with someone in a feedback session and they say, ‘You’re just too assertive,’ you should say, ‘Thank you so much for that feedback. Assertive compared to whom?’” Menendez recommended. Opening a line of active questioning about subjective feedback can crumble the argument of someone who is criticizing your likeability.
3. Remember that different leadership styles are always of value in a single workplace
Sometimes feedback is just feedback, and it might have to do with someone’s perception of your leadership style rather than their internal biases. Regardless, ensuring that you are not constantly catering to likeability means reminding yourself that if everyone was the same kind of leader, nothing would get done. If you do things a certain way and someone at your workplace is having a hard time grasping your leadership style, that does not necessarily mean that you have to change. Thinking about how the feedback is structured, whether or not you have actually worked with the person who is giving you feedback, and consulting colleagues on any criticism you may receive is always great practice when considering whether or not to take certain comments to heart.