The Atlas

Being likeable is a red herring

Likeability is a nasty topic, and one that I truly resent. For starters, what constitutes being likeable? And how do you measure that for a single person, much less a group of people, all of whom have different definitions and standards? Even worse, what happens when we have decades of evidence that shows us that people generally apply different standards and expectations of 'likeability' to men vs. women, people of our own race vs. a different one, cultural differences and foreign accents?

The answer: it can make us stupid.

And, of course, the reason I hate this topic most of all, is because there is always at least some degree to which it does actually matter. Someone who is fundamentally unlikeable can be a cancer in any work environment. The last thing that anyone wants is a co-worker (much less a boss) who is an asshole.

But, particularly cultures that take pride in being "nice," will mistake first impression likeability for a good fit.

So maybe it's more helpful to break the concept of what makes a person likeable down further. What does truly make a person -- particularly a co-worker -- "likeable"?

  1. Someone who looks like us. And I don't just mean "look" in the physical sense, though that is often helpful. But that could also mean lifestyle, politics, professional background, the way we speak or any number of other ways in which we identify. We will typically gravitate towards someone who does not feel threatening -- which usually starts off about what we have in common.
  2. Someone who agrees with us. This is, more often than not, a particularly huge danger in the interview process. Bosses will often pick candidates who sound like they are likely to make a habit of agreeing with them; and individual contributors who are screening for a new boss will often give a lot of weight to this, too.
  3. Someone who can be trusted to do the job. They can do it well. They can do it with energy and commitment. And they can carry their own weight (if not a bit more), and own the responsibilities that come with their role.
  4. Someone who can learn. They don't assume that this company should behave like their last one. They recognize that there are different priorities, drivers and personalities at play. They pick their battles on the things that need to be changed to ensure progress, versus just rocking the boat for the sake of making waves.
  5. Someone who is a team player. They don't preen. They don't throw people under the bus. They genuinely show up to be part of something bigger, and they contribute to the collective successes and share the collective heartaches. They don't succumb to inclinations to be smug or condescending when talking to people with less expertise, and they listen when others talk.
  6. Someone who respects differences. Diversity is an easy buzzword to get attached to, but it's very hard to remember to apply it to differences of opinion and perspective, as much as differences in race, gender or sexual orientation. But respecting differences also means differing respectfully. There are dozens of ways to disagree with someone and make your case. If your default is to be a dick, pull rank or ignore other people's concerns, then you're probably not being very likeable.

In my years of hiring, being hired and helping others hire, I have watched #1 and #2 hold far, far too much sway over the net result. When the reality is that #3-6 are typically what most organizations say is really important.

When I am interviewing multiple people for the same role, I often find myself developing an opinion before I can articulate why. So I ask myself why, and I run through these reasons.

The more I've learned to watch my own inclination towards judgement, the more clear it has become to me that if you work on your interview techniques, and you truly listen to people when they talk, most people will reveal a lot of the answers you are looking to understand in #3-6. The biggest challenge, as usual, is that we have to get out of our own way and not double-down on #1 and #2 at the expense of everything else.

We've all known charming douchebags who turn into Teflon when something goes wrong, whose only true talent is managing up and who are quick to point fingers when things go wrong. But the truth is, most of the time, they were like that before they ever joined the team, and if we'd listened carefully, we might have even spotted some of that before we hired them.

Given the choice, what most of us really want in a co-worker is competence and reliability. Since we almost all think that is true of ourselves, then it's natural to think that someone who reminds us of ourselves must also be competent and reliable. When you get stuck in that loop, though, try to remember one other thing: a good con artist uses the exact same bias to get you to trust him enough to swipe your life savings.

Keep your eye on the prize -- whatever that happens to be!

Alora's Signature