Are Your “Likeable” Employees Likeable for the Wrong Reasons?

If you’re in customer service, I can see how being likeable is crucial. After all, who wants to give their burger and fries order to a person they don’t like? Or who doesn’t(except for me, of course) want to have the customer service rep answering the phone first ask you, “How are you doing today?” before addressing your problem? As you can tell, I’m not big on the likeability factor. I don’t care whether or not I like the person serving me burgers and fries, and I can’t stand it when customer service reps don’t simply say, “Hello,” identify themselves, and then immediately ask how they can help.

So naturally, I’m not into it when I see incompetent, or relatively less competent, people propped up and pushed forward based on likeability. It makes me mad. Part of it may be sour grapes because I realize that to many people, I’m not especially likeable. I’m not one of those people most people meet and immediately like. I have many stellar qualities, but widespread likeability isn’t one of them. 

I was annoyed with this question of likeability, and the irritation of watching the likeable succeed over the competent and worthy, so I did what we all do in today’s world when we’re annoyed—a Google search. I didn’t find anything that addressed my particular beef of incompetent people pushed forward simply because they’re likeable, but I did find this page on CareerPivotfeaturing recommendations on books about the likeability factor in the workplace. Most of what’s been written about likeability focuses on the genuinely positive traits likeable people have that draw others to them, rather than the many shallow, bias-laden reasons people like other people. Like anyone, I’m all in favor of promoting likeable people when likeable means highly competent, genuinely kind and sensitive, easy to talk to, and considerate of both supervisors and those managed. My annoyance is toward those who are seen as likeable for the wrong reasons.

Like much in our society, “likeable” doesn’t exist on an even playing field. As much as I admired and supported former President Barack Obama, I’ll never forget the moment from one of the primary debates in the 2008 election in which he quipped, “You’re likeable enough, Hillary.” There was an implication there, obviously, that she had a likeability deficit. You could argue the deficit may have been due to her particular personality, but I and many others would argue it had a lot to do with the differing ideals for men and women in our society, and the uphill battle it is for an ambitious, assertive woman to come across as “likeable.” 

More than the greater difficulty women face compared with men in doing the same things (being aggressive, pushing hard in business and politics, being a touch leader), and remaining “likeable,” those who are liked often are liked for biased reasons. I’ve experienced an executive who really likes a middle manager—likes him so much he does whatever he can to make sure that middle manager (a tall, booming-voiced white man in his sixties) succeeds. The executive will personally distribute columns this middle manager writes, and will reorganize the e-blast schedule for articles to make sure this middle manager’s columns get primetime slots for distribution. My hunch is the executive “likes” this middle manager and wants him to succeed so badly because this middle manager upholds the executive’s world view—that older white men with booming voices and back-slapping ways are the prototypes of success. That’s the picture of the traditionally successful person this executive (also in his sixties) grew up with, so it’s important to him that the ideal is upheld. It would create cognitive dissonance for him to give the same level of support to me, or to the two other hard-working, more-deserving women in our department because, as progressive as the executive thinks of himself, we don’t possess the image he grew up with of what a successful person looks like. 

Have you experienced this “likeable” phenomenon in your workplace? Do many, or most, of those likeable people have traits in common that extend beyond personality and competency traits, and have more to do with race, gender, and socio-economic background?

It’s human nature for it to be easier for us to “like” and support those who either look like us, or who look like what we learned as children to recognize as successful, “likeable” people. How can Human Resources and Learning professionals reveal these hidden biases to all employees, including company executives and leaders, so everyone has a chance of being likeable?