The Likeability Trap

Truthfully, this post has taken me a while to write. I read “The Likeability Trap” and “Brotopia” back to back and was ashamed, horrified, and overall shocked at how bad folks like myself had made the tech industry for everyone else. I thought about passing these books by and not mentioning them because I wasn’t sure how to talk about them. I’m still learning, but I know that a diversity problem exists in the tech world (of gender, race, and thought) . My hope is that as I continue navigating how best to help, that folks are open and honest about where I’m falling short. Until then I will continue doing my best to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging within my current company as well as across the tech industry. That said, let’s hop in.

I have to admit something to you, something I hate to admit: it is very important to me that you like me.”

From the very first line, it’s clear The Likeability Trap is going to call you out for things you hold as important, but are hurting both yourself and everyone around you. Author Alicia Menendez lays out thoughts and issues that not only plague folks that want to be liked, but specifically women trying to advance their career. 

I’ll be vulnerable with you, as a manager of women (all 5 of my direct reports currently), I thought I was being enough of an ally by “treating everyone the same.” This is the same fallacy of “I don’t see color!” While good-intentioned, the structures and systems that were put in place by hundreds of years of male-dominated societies defeat that thought. It’s not enough to treat everyone the same, there is additional sponsorship we must provide to continue to balance out the scales.  

“Be Yourself”

Menendez points out that many companies today offer a benefit of “a place where you can be yourself” and be the real authentic you, but she questions how many companies actually mean it. She notes “‘be yourself’ can sound like a dare,” especially to women. Significant judgment and unconscious bias put women in situations where a man would otherwise not be noticed. If you are at a company that promotes this, ask yourself the tough questions. Do I judge anyone for being fully themself in my environment? Do we truly mean what we say? Or is it “be yourself, but within these restrictions.”

Likeability will not make or break you

This is a key takeaway for anyone reading The Likeability Trap, and one that you should probably just write on a permanent post-it. The other way I’ve heard this, read somewhere in my early manager days, is “it’s better to be respected than liked.” As Menendez points out “Likeability isn’t a zero-sum game,” meaning you are giving something up when you put being liked ahead of what you truly believe. 

As a male, this opportunity is afforded much more freely. Menendez points out that men are seen as more confident and believable when they get angry in a meeting, whereas women are typically seen as too emotional or unstable. 

Anger as a power for men, but a detriment for women is just one of the many examples Menendez peppers throughout her book. It clearly outlines the imbalance between men and women in the workplace and definitely had me re-examining every argument I’d seen or participated in to see if I’d placed some unfair bias on the other party. Speaking with my mother, who was a pastor for many years in the United Methodist Church, she was able to confirm that she was generally labeled as “aggressive” where men showing the same traits were seen as “assertive.” 

While it may not be top of mind in conversations, the adjectives used to describe others in the workplace need to be completely re-examined. Confirming the above and driving the point home further, Menendez references the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor where she was called “angry” and “aggressive.” Menendez goes on to say “Calling a woman emotional is a great way to call her incompetent without using the word.”

Sponsorship

Menendez devotes a section of her book to sponsorship, or how to further promote women in business. Not even promotion from a hierarchy standpoint, but to continue helping push women into new growth opportunities or shining a spotlight on their accomplishments. One great example she mentions is, instead of saying a woman is “helpful,” call out their specific achievements. In Menendez’s own words, in an interview with NPR:

I’m a big believer in the benefit of sponsorship, which – you know, mentorship is advice, counsel, but sponsorship, this idea from Sylvia Ann Hewlett, which is really someone who will connect you with opportunities for advancement, someone who will provide cover for you when you take big risks, that if that is baked in from the organization, if that is a priority on behalf of the organization, then it’s much more likely for the people who need sponsors most to get them.

Think about opportunities you have to help with this in your day-to-day. Are you spending any time on sponsorship? Or are you stopping at the mentorship step? 

Additional Notes

Conclusion

This is a must-read for anyone in the business world that is wondering how to be a better co-worker. Not just to women specifically, but building empathy and understanding for anyone that isn’t a part of the majority. There are still some major chasms that need to be bridged to get to a place where things are even close to equal and the process begins with those that have been afforded the privilege. As I mentioned at the top, I am still learning. I know there is more I can do and more I can learn, so feel free to reach out to discuss further. I’ll close this with another quote from Menendez:

Being ourselves and becoming ourselves is a process. In the process, we’ve likely taken some cues that did not serve us.

Think about those times where you’ve made a change based on an offhand or direct comment. Did that serve your core beliefs and values? Or was it a step in the wrong direction?

As mentioned at the top, I’d love to learn more about how to continue being a better ally in the realm of DEIB. If you’d like to comment with thoughts below feel free, or reach out directly on LinkedIn. 

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John Hartley is a Director of Product Engineering at Beam Dental in Columbus, OH. With 5+ years of leadership experience he has worked in startups, agencies, and began his career as a freelance Front End Developer. Always looking to iterate, this blog is a place for him to share his knowledge as well as hone his craft, challenge assumptions, and build a strong base of leadership and management knowledge. Connect with him on LinkedIn

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