LeadingWoman: To be liked, or not

One of my favourite books about women and leadership is Nice girls don’t get the corner office by Lois Frankel, who has blogged for us at LeadingCompany.

Frankel outlines a somewhat daunting 101 mistakes that women may make at work, unconsciously sabotaging their leadership aspirations. Thankfully, she points out within the first few pages that women typically only have one or two weaknesses that they need to work on.

I don’t always agree with Frankel – on matters of dress for example we differ – but I love mistakes number 16 and 17: Needing to be liked and Not needing to be liked.

The two together sum up one of those typical challenges for leading women – how to be seen as a human being, but also to engender respect.

Likeability is part of what gets people promoted – both men and women. And everyone enjoys being liked, of course. But there is an added element for women, I believe.

It is to do with growing up hemmed in by social restrictions – those that remain. As girls turn into women we might throw off the shackles of social disapproval and do as we please, but we are left hankering just a little too hard for a kind word, or a warm smile. I suppose the word is anxious; social disapproval makes women just a bit more anxious.

For some, the answer is not to stray too far outside the boundaries. These women do a good job, but when they come to a point when an unpopular choice is necessary, they retreat. They shape their behaviour so that they stay liked, even if it cost them respect, and maybe their careers.

Frankel’s suggested antidote is a good one: women need to remind themselves that no one is universally liked; that is an impossibility. (I’d go a little further to suggest that in almost all decisions women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t!)

She also reminds us that needing to be liked makes us susceptible to manipulators: just get angry with us, and we’ll buckle. Don’t fall for that ploy, Frankel advises.

The danger for women is to adopt the opposite attitude: not caring about whether you are liked or not.

The problem here is that leaders need to be liked. They need to be liked to get the job in the first place. They need to be liked to be effective in the modern world of leadership where command and control management styles have been overthrown by winning people’s loyalty, trust and respect.

To be liked requires a willingness to be vulnerable, find common ground and listen to others, and this can be difficult for ambitious women who have experienced resistance and resentment over the years.

It is a risk, but it is also one of the strengths of leading women.

Whether it is innate or not, women are good at building relationships through empathy and warmth, and this is a key characteristic of today’s outstanding leaders.


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