How strong is your need to be liked?

Updated: Sep 17

White toy astronaut on blue background

I recently read this article from AllBright on the Likeability trap, inspired by a new book (which, full disclosure, I have not read.)

The piece talks about our need to be liked, a need perhaps felt more by women than men, although deep down, I think most of us want to be liked - we have an innate need to connect with others.

“Like” is such a subjective word as we will get on with some people and not others. Therefore doing things in order to be liked is, in fact, often futile. Unless we know the person well, their needs, what triggers them, and what encourages them, we cannot know how to act in a way that will make them like us.

The question we should be asking ourselves, is what do we want to be liked for? How do I want people to see me at work? You may want to be seen as a good leader, advocating for your team, empathising, and listening to them. But you may also want to be seen as someone able to have that difficult conversation with an underperformer, and saying the thing in the meeting that may be unpopular, but that may prevent the organisation from making a massive mistake.

If I think back to my school days, the teachers I liked most were those who made the lesson interesting and who could keep some kind of control over the class. They were maybe a bit strict, but were fair. I did not like the teachers who were softer in their approach to class discipline and were subsequently taken advantage of. Even the students who benefitted the most from their leniency didn’t show any more kindness or respect to them. By trying to be liked by their pupils, they ended up in a situation where they were neither liked nor respected.

Three women smiling at an office desk

The article also outlines some suggestions on how to deal with the likeability trap, mainly focusing on the subject of receiving and handling feedback. In a very polite British culture, the issue is more likely to be that we are not receiving any feedback on how we come across - so we look for reactions that may not be there. Women, in particular, can pick up on very subtle cues and changes in behaviour - so a shift in a tone of voice or a particular facial expression can send us into a tizzy as to whether we have upset someone. We are so keen not to offend that we often assume we have offended, even if our evidence for this is subjective and, at worst, very flimsy. Then follows an internal debate about whether to apologise or not. In the past, I have been on What’s App group chat apologies for behaviour that no one in the group had felt was unreasonable. This then leaves the apologist thinking that people are just being nice and likeable by saying there wasn’t a problem, but they honestly think it was an issue. Or so much attention is drawn to something that everyone took as innocuous behaviour, that it then gets analysed by the entire group to determine where the offence lay.

So my advice for getting out of the likeability trap?

  • Separate intent from the outcome. If your intentions are good, but your words or actions may not have come across well, then recognise that you could have handled the situation better, but you are not an unlikeable person.

  • Accept that everyone makes mistakes. You will unwittingly upset some people sometimes, but generally speaking, everyone has a short memory.

  • If you find you do need to apologise, consider for what you are apologising. How someone takes something you have said or done says more about them than it does about you.

  • Be confident in your own identity. Understanding yourself and your value can help you accept criticism for what it is, rather than seeing it as an absolute truth about you. If you know that your style is direct and honest and recognise that some people may find that a little rude in some situations, that can help frame the feedback you receive.

And so