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Why you shouldn’t worry about being likable at work

“You like me, you really, really like me,” Sally Fields oozed with euphoria in her 1984 Oscars acceptance speech for best actress for her role in Places in the Heart.

Some of us have not quite felt that giddy about our workplace relationships and the feedback we get from colleagues, supervisors, peers, clients, and bosses. But most of us do want to be perceived as likable.

We don’t need to be crowned Miss Congeniality every day. But smiles and warm greetings most days are welcome.

Still, new research shows that for women likability is not easily attained. And just maybe it isn’t something we need to chase anyway.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently told the Washington Post: “It’s not your job to be likable. It’s your job to be yourself. Someone will like you anyway.”

Nora Krug writes about Adichie: “Her new book, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, offers, as its title advertises, 15 ways that we — parents, mostly — can encourage girls to be strong, to plant the seeds of feminism. But more than that, Adichie hopes the book will help ‘move us toward a world that is more gender equal.’”

True, you do not have to bring in cookies and dole out compliments every few minutes to be liked at work. But there are factors working against every woman on her likability scorecard.

David Burkus, author of Under New Management, writes in Harvard Business Review: “In a recent study by Furman University’s Christin Munsch, the reactions that men and women receive when requesting flexible work requests are quite different — and quite favorable to men. Munsch studied over 600 working-age individuals, all from the United States.”

Women are under more intense scrutiny

They found that women who asked for flextime were not perceived as likable. For men, it didn’t matter.

Perhaps some people perceive that women “are getting away with something” by having a flexible arrangement. They perceive men as resourceful by arranging a schedule that makes them more productive.

Other research reinforces this notion as studies show that women in the workplace are under more intense scrutiny than their male peers.

In a new study from The University of Los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia, the authors wrote: “Women leaders are often confronted with other’s perceptions of them—perceptions that may not be wholly accurate.”

This is especially true for “senior women leaders working in male-dominated industries,” experiencing what  the researchers call “internal identity asymmetry.”

Women in leadership also get regular feedback that blocks their likability, even if it seems haphazard and counter-intuitive.

Women get different feedback than men

Fiona Smith writes in The Guardian that a new study from “Chief Executive Women and Bain & Company finds a stark difference between the feedback received by men and women.”

Smith writes: “’We found that women are twice as likely as men to receive feedback indicating they need to show ‘more confidence’ to be ready for promotion,’ say the authors of the Advancing Women in Australia: Eliminating Bias in Feedback and Promotions report. ‘Women in this situation also face a double bind in which they are often criticized for coming across as too assertive, as this goes against ingrained feminine stereotypical behaviors.’”

She adds: “’Executive female respondents had been told to ‘toughen up,’ ‘be more likable at the expense of efficiency’ and ‘temper [their] enthusiasm.’” More than twice as many women as men were told that in order to be more likable, they needed to change their management styles, according to the report.

Feedback is indeed gendered, additional research shows.

In a recent issue of The Leadership Quarterly, researchers from State University of New York at Stony Brook found that feedback is a power tool that is often used against women.

“We propose that performance feedback can be a power retention mechanism that puts women at a relative disadvantage and contributes to the lack of women in leadership positions. Feedback is an evaluative process, with the (typically higher-power) source often having considerable discretion and means to deliver feedback and the feedback recipient often being at the mercy of the will of the source.”

It depends on who is giving the feedback

In other words, the person writing the evaluation may be harder on women in leadership than on male leaders and your career may stall because of it.

“Gender moderates feedback delivery and reactions to feedback, which influence the persistent gender gap in leadership, subsequently reinforcing the power retention conditions.”

Women lawyers experience this regularly, other research shows. In the new paper, “Nasty Women and the Rule of Law,” co-author Alice Woolley at the University of Calgary writes:

”Criticisms and attacks on women lawyers are personal and gendered, as well as being intense and hostile, in a way that differs from the generic, often humorous, and impersonal nature of traditional antipathy to the legal profession.”

The Goldilocks Syndrome

This is what I call “The Goldilocks Syndrome.” As woman in leadership across disciplines, it is likely in many workplace cultures that you are either told your approach is too hard or too soft. It takes quite a long time to find out how your approach can be considered just right.

In a workplace culture that may have a rigid framework of power hierarchy, shifting your own relationship to power will change the narrative for you.

Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead, reminds everyone in the “9 Leadership Power Tools” to “redefine power not as “Power-Over,” but as “Power-To.” That way we shift from a culture of oppression to a culture of positive intention to make things better for everyone. This is Leadership  Power Tool #2: “Define Your Own Terms—First, Before Anyone Else Does.”

Being liked is not the ultimate goal. Productivity, collaboration and meaningful work are. This is where your authenticity will land and ultimately become your reputation.

This article originally appeared on Take The Lead.

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project.

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