Why likability matters more than competence

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Malpractice lawsuits are every doctor’s nightmare.

Once a doctor gets sued for malpractice, the implications reach far and wide. Patients distrust their doctor. Self-doubt creeps in. Some doctors even take it as a sign to leave the medical profession altogether. Even though many cases are dismissed or settled outside court, the effects of receiving that dreaded notice letter can last a lifetime.

study using a malpractice database in Florida found that 6 percent of obstetricians accounted for over 70 percent of all malpractice-related expenses over a 5-year period. Further research showed that claims at all levels, from unpaid claims to large paid claims, played a predictor in whether a doctor was sued in the past.

Basically, some doctors get sued repeatedly, while others hardly ever get sued. There’s clearly a difference between the two. But what is it? Why do malpractice lawsuits happen in the first place?

When the topic of malpractice comes up, our minds instantly conjure images of a doctor who is negligent in his or her duties. Maybe the doctor misdiagnosed a patient or prescribed the wrong treatment. Subsequently, the patient suffered as a result.

If such were the case, then a malpractice lawsuit would make sense. But a deeper look into why patients file claims shows a very different story. And the reasons behind their actions may surprise you.

In an audiotape analysis comparing physicians with claims versus those with no claims, there was a significant difference in communication levels. Compared to claims physicians, no claims physicians tended to educate patients more about their care, used more humor and laughed with patients, and tried to engage their patients in conversation.

Physicians without claims had longer meetings on average than physicians with claims. Overall, no claims physicians had stronger interpersonal relationships with patients than claims physicians had with their patients. It seems the more likeable a physician, the less likely he or she is to be sued.

Interestingly, the reverse is also true. Patients tend to get worse treatment and get neglected if a doctor perceives them as unlikeable. Their pain is taken less seriously than well-liked patients.

It pays to be nice to the people around you.

What Does It Mean To Be Good At Your Work?

There’s a belief that getting ahead is about competence. If you can resolve issues, avoid mistakes, and get others to recognize your brilliance, your hard work will pay off.

But being liked by others matters just as much, if not more.

study looked at internal auditors’ ability to influence managers. A group of researchers evaluated three fundamental variables:

  • Interpersonal likability
  • Information used to support their positions
  • Whether the information was presented in a thematically organized argument

The researchers found that managers are more likely to comply with an auditor who is likable and presents information in a thematically organized argument, even when the manager tends to disagree and the auditor lacks supporting information.

Being likable is especially important when it comes to fostering work relationships. I once spoke with a business owner who provided financing to startups. He asked me if I knew the most important thing in his line of business. Since it was clear I didn’t know, he finally said, “Sales.”

Sales. At first, I didn’t understand. But gradually, it made sense. Sales are the lifeline of a business. When you look at the structure of a corporation, there’s a difference in the skillset required at junior levels compared to the senior levels.

At the lower tiers, the focus is on competence. Hard skills matter, such as knowledge, technical expertise, and mechanical skills. When you go higher up, soft skills become more important. You need to be able to communicate, share ideas, and develop a rapport with others. In order to get promoted, you need to show that you can bring in business. Sales.

If you’re in an interpersonal role, such as a freelancer, manager, or a sales representative, being likable matters a lot. To be likable means making the other person feel at ease and showing that you care about their needs and wants. When you’re likable, the person at the other end of the table is more likely to put their trust in you and treat you better.

How to Be Likeable

While some people are more charismatic than others, we can all train ourselves to become more presentable, engaging, and interesting. If you follow these three steps, you can become more likable to the people you interact with:

1. Convey positive body language

Have you ever looked at two people having a conversation from far away? You can’t hear any of the words, but you see their postures and mannerisms. When both parties are engaged in the conversation, their bodies are facing one another. They start to mimic each other’s gestures.

Your body language conveys more about how you feel than the words you say. To show that you are fully engaged in the conversation, keep an open body posture. Avoid crossing your arms or covering the front of your body, since this sends signals that you don’t really want to be there.

You’ve heard about the importance of maintaining eye contact. The problem is how do you look at a person without staring?

Try this: Instead of looking directly at a person’s eyes, periodically focus on one eye, then the person’s nose, and at the center of the face as a whole. Shifting focus helps you keep eye contact without making you or the other person feel uncomfortable.

2. Listen attentively

Do you know what’s more important than talking to someone? Listening to them. Listening shows that you care about the other person’s thoughts. Listening shines the focus onto the other person.

When you listen, you see from their perspective. You empathize with the other person. You provide a safe place for the person to share. To really listen to someone means not looking around for someone else to talk to or thinking about what you want to say next.

People pick up on whether or not you want to be there. To show that you’re listening, give the person your full attention and nod your head once in a while. Show your interest by asking follow-up questions. Listening is a form of giving.

3. Focus on topics that interest the other person

If possible, do research and learn more about the person or audience beforehand. Find out what they like, what they’re passionate about, and what drives them.

Listening to the person will also help you figure out what interests them. If you touch upon a topic that makes their eyes light up and causes them to talk more, focus more on that. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the topic, you can still converse with the person by taking on the role of someone trying to learn more about it.

When it’s your turn to talk, try to tell more stories than facts. People love stories because they’re emotional and have a narrative arc with a beginning and ending. It’s good to practice your stories and have a few on hand. Over time, you learn which stories resonate and how to tell them with maximum impact.

When You Care About Others, Others Care About You

Logically speaking, someone’s competence should matter more than how much you like that person. We always talk about how we want the best and brightest. So shouldn’t we focus on the results of their work?

But that’s not how humans are made. What we want is different from what we say we want. At the core, we’re emotional beings.

When logic and emotion are at war, logic finds itself on the losing end of the battle. Yes, even if you’re a rational, intelligent person. Even if you’re a professional at what you do. Even if you understand how the brain works.

After all is said and done, we want to be around people who make us feel better about ourselves. We like people who like us. So remember, being likable can carry you far in life – perhaps even further than the skills, talents, and knowledge you possess.

This article first appeared on Jump Start Your Life.