Over vacation, I finally read The Likeability Trap: How to Break Free and Succeed as You Are by Alicia Menendez. I’ve had it for a while and fiiiiinally read it—and I’m so glad I did.
I recommend it, especially for those a few years into their careers and trying to figure out the next steps. The Likeability Trap is about just that—the trap that women fall into when trying to succeed at work. It’s the rock and hard place where if we’re too nice we’re seen as ineffective but if we’re not nice enough we’re seen as aggressive and angry—far too emotional to be leaders.
The book goes into case studies that shows that it’s not just as easy as not worrying about being liked because there’s a penalty when women don’t behave in a way that makes them likeable. I’m sure this is something most men don’t have to worry about. But women often find themselves at a crossroad when trying to level up. If they’re a team player and “too” nice, they’re told they’re not ready to lead. In contrast, if they are assertive and direct, they are told they’re too much and to scale it back. So we find ourselves doing this weird tightrope walk all in an effort to get ahead.
What has this looked like for me? I find this issue difficult because in general I’m a nice enough leader. I’ve never taken on any traditionally masculine traits to lead a team, and frankly, in the spaces I work in, it would not have been effective. I also know that I’ve never enjoyed working for someone who isn’t nice (nor have I respected them). And I’ve never received better outcomes from staff by not being nice and collegial. At the same time, I know that my niceness has made others question my intelligence and skills. So yes, leaning into my natural demeanor of being nice and easy-going has had positives and negatives.
Knowing that it may make people view me a certain way, why don’t I change my behavior? Because I don’t want to. Those who presume to know things about me just from my demeanor haven’t been anyone I’ve needed to care about. Bosses will get to know you and your work product and direct reports will get to know you and your expectations as well. Because of that, for me, there’s been no need to change my approach.
And that is what The Likeability Trap concludes—being your authentic self is far more important than bending and breaking to fit stereotypical profiles.
However, it’s a little different for those that are new to their roles. When you’re starting out, it’s less about wondering whether you are liked and more about being seen as a competent, dependable, intelligent team member that delivers. That’s where most of your focus should be, but it’s good to get a lay of the land to see not only who gets promoted to leadership roles but what is their leadership approach? Is it something you could/would want to emulate? Have you had experiences in the past that will guide how you lead others? What/how/and if you adapt your style will also depend on the experiences you gain as you develop your legal career and your own personal goals.
Ultimately for me, the main question is do you like yourself? Do you like the way you treat others? Are you proud of the way you build and manage a team? To me that is the litmus test because if you can’t look back and feel good about your work and how you developed others then something needs to shift.