Why being likable can be a remarkable life skill

As entrepreneurs and leaders, you also struggle to maintain the balance between likability and effectiveness.

Not many people are excited to get a phone call from an FBI agent. They tend to be even less enthusiastic when told the agent needs to speak to them about a current investigation. Sometimes I focused on being likable; other times, I focused on how to get the job done rather than worry about hurt feelings.  

As entrepreneurs and leaders, you also struggle to maintain the balance between likability and effectiveness. At times it’ll be important to establish personal connections and develop new relationships so you don’t miss out on great opportunities. Other times you’ll need to impress new clients and competitors with your competence and capabilities.

Although Steve Jobs got away with it, being a jerk doesn’t add value in most cases. The tough question for leaders is when to pour on the charm and schmooze, and when to roll over the competition to get the best deal.

A gap is created when your ability to get the job done is more important to your investors and employees than your likability. To be ruthlessly effective, a few dead bodies may be left behind and it could affect your reputation in both the market and the organization.

The well-researched OCEAN model has identified 5 personality characteristics that are most important to people’s lives. The five traits are: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident). These five traits are stable over time and they persist despite our circumstances. They have an impact on how well you do in life.

Out of the 5 personality traits, research has identified one above the rest that predicts professional success: agreeableness. In other words, likability. Likable people possess the admirable traits of politeness, respectfulness, and listening skills.

Let’s take a closer look at why being likable can be a remarkable life skill:

1. Be likable for the right reasons

Unfortunately, likable can be viewed as a synonym for wimp—the affable person who goes along with everyone to keep the peace. Wimps don’t want to upset others and will go out of their way to be nice. They let people walk all over them because they don’t have the backbone to take a stand on something that’s important.

As a leader, you may need to place pressure on employees or investors to maintain the competitiveness of your company. Likable people are not afraid to dig in their heels when they see ways to make the world a better place. They’d rather be called a jerk than pass up an opportunity to pursue a far-reaching vision (i.e. Steve Jobs).

Wimps let themselves be influenced by the values of others. Likable people get along with others but stand up for what they believe is right.

How To Make It Work For You: Identify the core values that are most important to you. Values are a collection of your personal experiences, trials, and successes. They’re not something to be selected from a list because they sound like good ones. If you’re stuck, you might need to look at a core values list to remind yourself of what truly resonates with you. Narrow that list down to the five most important. If everything is a core value, then nothing is a priority.

2. First Impressions set the tone

Research by Princeton psychologists reveal that when we see a new face, our brains decide whether a person is likable within a tenth of a second. A single word does not need to be exchanged with the other person.

It’s imperative to walk into every first meeting or encounter with confidence because it will show on your face. This confidence translates into likability by other people. The same study shows that longer exposure doesn’t significantly alter impressions, which means our initial split-second assessment sticks around.

Can you correct a bad first impression? It’s not easy but other research has found that if you provide people with information that allows them to see you in a new context, over time you can change their opinion of you.

How To Make It Work For You: First impressions are the result of positive body language. Walk with purpose and confidence, maintain a strong posture, offer a firm handshake, smile, face the person to whom you are talking, and make eye contact. If their eyes start to wander, it’s a clue they’ve lost interest in you.

3. Lasting impressions Are Also Critical

It’s important to make a good first impression, but we also need to make a good last impression because often this is the one that stays with us. Research by Daniel Kahneman shows that people tend to judge an experience based on how they felt at its peak, and at its end, rather than the average of every moment of the experience.

This is called the peak-end rule and it applies whether the experience is pleasant or unpleasant. Experts agree, however, that a positive memory of the overall experience stays with us far longer than a single memory of either a peak or end moment.

How To Make It Work For You: If you leave a negative initial impression, you can counteract it with a positive peak and end. It’s key for you to recognize how/when that first impression became negative and follow up with a gesture that will be stored as a peak experience in the mind of the other person. Hold the door open, buy a drink, or offer to broker an important introduction—all of these are small gestures that can leave a strong lasting impression.

4. Honesty can be painful, but it’s worth it

Convivial folks tend to go along to get along, so it’s easy to understand why many people confuse likable people with people pleasers.

Sincerity and honesty are important components of likability. We gravitate toward people we trust. Likable people are not afraid to speak up even when there’s a good chance they’ll upset someone. If they don’t agree with something said, they’ll say so. They’re diplomatic and choose their words with care to lessen the potential to offend, but they speak the truth. That’s why we trust them.

How To Make It Work For You: If there’s something you need to say, even if you’re uncomfortable, just say it. Take these precautions: be certain before you open your mouth that your words are constructive and not perceived as a personal attack.

5. Curiosity opens many doors

If you want to be the most interesting person in the room, curiosity is the social requirement. Studies conducted by George Mason University psychologist Todd Kashdan found that being curious is essential if we want to cultivate and maintain relationships. Curiosity is what gets the dialogue going and is the secret juice of relationships.

A big mistake many people make in conversations is that they focus too much on how they plan to respond to the other person. As a result, they don’t process what has been spoken. The opportunity for a spontaneous response is missed because they hadn’t really listened to what was said.

Several studies published in the Greater Good Science Center reveal that curious people have better relationships and connect better with others. People are attracted and feel socially closer to individuals who are curious.

How To Make It Work For You: Ask a lot of questions. People like to know you’ve listened to what they said. A simple follow-up question shows that you listened and care about what they said and who they are as individuals. When you ask questions of people, you gain their respect and appreciation.

LaRae Quy|was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years