Powerful Band-Aid for Women to Overcome the “Likeability Bias”

6 min read

Words from a humble man

Right now, I wish I was a woman. I am about to write something that might not get heard because it didn’t come from a woman. Considering how the male mind works, and since I am a man, it may be perceived as male advice. The thoughts I am about to offer are pragmatic and specifically focused on the short-term.

By focusing on the short-term, the challenge to accept is that things aren’t going to change in that time frame – especially the bigger issues. Please see this as an honest attempt to share some pragmatic tools, given the world we are currently living in.

What is the “Likeability Bias”?

Sheryl Sandberg’s work with her ‘Lean In’ campaign inspired me to write this blog post. I have heard several of her speeches and it blew my mind just how present the challenges are that we are facing with gender inequality in our society. One thing that particularly stuck out was what I ended up calling the “likeability bias”.

Sheryl pointed out something very interesting. She says that while success and likeability are positively correlated for men, it is negatively correlated for women. It’s very simple: the more successful a woman is, the less she is liked by men and women. In contrast, when a man is successful, he becomes more liked.

The Journey to Change

According to Sheryl, that leads to situations, during performance reviews, where a woman is told she is good but maybe too aggressive or political. If a man was acting in the same way, they likely wouldn’t receive that type of feedback. I agree with Sheryl’s solution: people need to simply be aware of this.

If we raise awareness of this, we actually might be able to change how things are seen and through that process, achieve resolution for this likeability bias towards women. This of course will take time. Changing stereotypes in our society is a very difficult and long-term process. This is one of the reasons we have to thank Sheryl as well as all other women and men who embark in this journey. The more that join, the faster the change will come.

The Band-Aid Solution

In the meantime, I started to wonder what can be done to help women stuck in this situation, right now. Is there something that will produce instant results? Could there be a Band-Aid solution? I think the answer is yes.

The Band-Aid solution, in my opinion, is managing the microcosm of your surrounding relationships by learning more about how likeability works. How can we make people within our work environment like us more – with or without success – to overcome that built-in bias that Sheryl so eloquently points out? Is there a way we, as individuals, can shift the balance of this unhelpful correlation of success and likeability for women? Again, the answer is yes.

To do this, we need to understand the concept of likability a little bit better. Let’s take a look!

Likeability 101: Find Common Ground

We can learn from psychology how likeability works. We connect with people because we find things in common with them. When we do this, we inch closer to those people. In fact, something interesting happens in our mind. For example, since Sheryl and I share the passion of gender equality, my brain tells me ‘I am like Sheryl’. Likewise, if I have a conversation with Sheryl, she will think ‘I am like Patrick’.

Saying ‘I am like you’ is powerful because it’s no different than saying ‘I like you’. This at least is what science tells us. It makes sense as 40,000 years ago we had our brain process if a person belongs to our tribe or not. If he did we collaborated if not we fought. Through finding common ground, you get people to think they are like you, therefore, end up liking you. It’s a process that is somewhat hardwired into our brain and that allows us, to a certain extent, to manage our likeability. We can ensure people like us more just by finding things in common.

Now, in my view, likeability is one of the most under-utilized concepts in business today, despite the fact that mostly good things come from it. If people like you they will be the first to find reasons to forgive you when you make a mistake, they will cooperate with you much more effectively to get conflicts resolved, they will send you more opportunities and yes, they most likely will see your behavior as less aggressive or political.

Finding Common Ground to Drive Likeability (and shift the Likeability bias balance in your favor)

In most work environments, that is a path open to us and just requires a certain skill of finding those commonalities. In my view, these connections will not only be found on the professional front but also in your personal life (i.e. what personal interests or passions to you share?). It can be a sport, book, type of music, activity or organization of interest. This is how we can connect with people and drive likeability.

If this ends up really working for you, there’s a chance you can shift that balance quite dramatically in your favor, despite the likeability bias towards women. You just have to become really good about finding things you have in common with people and feed that knowledge with experiences. How to do that in detail might be a great blog post for the future?

While this doesn’t do much for the general negative correlation between likeability and success towards women, it may very well help you in your particular situation. This is clearly just a Band-Aid and we hope things will change in the long-run (I am certain it will). Nevertheless, working on this skill makes a lot of sense. Although it is a Band-Aid right now, it is a long-term skill that will help you in many life situations even after we fix the likeability bias for women as a society.

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