Most of us want to be liked as we go through our day – it’s more pleasant, even more comfortable. Being liked in the workplace, however, isn’t the most advantageous quality for your career advancement and can even be a trap for women as they navigate a balance between traditionally masculine and feminine traits or characteristics.
I got the idea to write about this topic after reading the opinion piece, “How Women Escape the Likability Trap,” by Joan C. Williams, a professor of law and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, published in The New York Times on August 18, 2019.
“There has been a lot of talk recently in the political arena about the likability trap for women: Women who behave in authoritative ways risk being disliked as insufferable prima donnas, pedantic schoolmarms or witchy women,” writes Williams.
Williams goes on to write about how successful women overcome this form of gender bias. It was enlightening for me to read her take on this important topic.
In my many years of career coaching and mentoring women to overcome challenges in the workplace, I have found three of the most common traps women can fall into. We call them likability traps, and these are the most common:
- Being the office mom is the worst direction you can possibly go. This is such a common trap for women, because we’re care givers in so many other aspects of our lives. When you bring this to the office, however, a nurturing demeanor with a willingness to take care of everyone puts you in a subordinate role. While this is most common for women, it can be a serious dilemma for both men and women.
- Depending on traditional feminine style is too easy. Most women find that they rely on using 90% traditional feminine style and 10% more traditionally masculine style to navigate at the office. When you spend most of the time trying to use traditional female techniques to win people over, you give up the strength and power that should be part of your leadership style. Unless we have the courage to do something differently, we will continue to maintain a system where we let men take the lead and the system will not change.
- Avoid gender displays. Sometimes called anthropologic displays, gender displays include examples such as always wearing pink lipstick or always wearing a skirt to attempt to counterbalance a more commanding leadership style. This is so dangerous when you fall into this likability trap. When a woman resorts to gender displays, she continues to propagate viewing a woman as an object, usually without even realizing what she’s doing. This can be very distressing.
Now that we know what to watch for, what can we do about these likability traps? First, delete from your vocabulary (and your way of thinking) terms like femininity and masculinity. Instead think in terms of the appropriate tools to use for the circumstances, such as collaboration or even command.
Collaboration and consensus-building are vital when you’re seeking input from others. It’s always a good idea to solicit additional ideas from others when you’re trying to brainstorm or bring creativity into your workplace. These skills – collaboration and consensus-building – are absolutely essential to certain situations. That is not about being feminine or masculine – that is simply smart!
Take each situation for what it is and ask yourself “What works situationally?” Go another step and ask, “What gives me the outcome I’m looking for?” When we want input, creative ideas and buy-in to build consensus, use your smart skills and avoid relying on a gender crutch.
On the other hand, there are many occasions when you need a commanding style. When someone needs to step up and take the lead, when no one else is stepping up or when time is of the essence, being the team member who can take command and lead a group to a resolution is incredibly valuable.
As you’re assessing the situation, be ready for the times when you can’t go down the collaborative, consensus building road, because you need to make a decision. If you recognize the opportunity, you will shine!
If you recognize any of these likability traps in your workplace relationships and need help developing a strategy to overcome them, please give me a call at 513-561-4288 or connect with me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.