This trap—the pursuit of likeability at the expense of authenticity—is to me the biggest and the most all-encompassing pitfall for several reasons. For starters, the conflict between likeability and authenticity can extend well beyond work to every aspect of our lives.
Maybe you want to be candid with your friend about the fact that she only ever seems to talk about herself, but you know that with that truth comes the risk of alienation. Maybe you lose hours to anxiety wondering if that thing you said about gender reveal parties (while true!) was awkward. Maybe you wear culottes even though they are flattering on literally no one because you are embarrassed by the depths of your norm-coreness.
Plus, as one enters the workforce, or new workplaces, and evolves in response to those influences, sometimes a new, more authentic self emerges. I spoke with several women who, by working in environments in which they were encouraged to communicate more directly and assertively, actually felt liberated to be more direct and assertive. For them, a work environment that was stylistically different from the culture in which they were raised, or the long-standing expectations others had of them, helped them uncover a style that felt more aligned with who they actually are.
In those instances, the growing pains of discovering one’s true self manifest in real life, not in work life. Multiple women told me that as they became more assertive communicators at work, a change in themselves that they sometimes liked, people in their personal lives noticed and resisted.
Priyanka, an accountant, works on an audit team with a lot of bold and brash personalities. To thrive, she’s learned to be more assertive and confident in the way she communicates. She likes the new her. She feels empowered. Her mom, however, isn’t so sure. “You always sound so harsh now,” Priyanka’s mother recently commented to her. “Your tone is always so quick and sharp. You used to be really bubbly.” Priyanka assured her that the change was a positive one. “I told her that I’m not bitter and I’m not sad,” Priyanka explains. “I’m just getting it done.”
The tension between wanting (or, for practical purposes, needing) to be well-liked and being one’s authentic self at work is the most interesting to me because it is the conflict that becomes most internalized. It can take a serious toll on a woman: her energy, her confidence, her authentic sense of self. With every other supposed choice—warmth versus strength, self-advocacy versus likeability, ambition/success versus likeability—you are really choosing: Do I want to succeed as myself or do I want to succeed as someone else? Can I succeed as myself or is the only way I can succeed as someone else? And am I okay being myself, if that creates an impediment to my success? Or am I okay being someone else?
Plus, it creates a circular pattern. To be a leader we must be authentic, but others either see our authentic selves as not-leaderly, or they see our authentic selves as leaderly but unlikeable. No wonder professional women are tired.
Excerpt from The Likeability Trap by Alicia Menendez.
Reprinted here with permission of HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
The Likeability Trap comes out on November 5th, 2019. Order a copy here.