Understanding likeability at work

‘People need people’ albeit to varying degrees. We have an innate need to form relationships. We want to be liked by others which in turn would help us form relationships, strengthen and sustain them. This need is a double-edged sword: if not channeled well, it has the potential to become a derailer, specifically at workplace.

I know a colleague who hesitates to critically review the work done by his subordinates. Even when he finds a gross mistake done by someone, he shrinks from calling it out. He gives feedback, but it’s so mellowed that the subordinate does not understand the seriousness of the mistake. Giving a tough feedback (which would benefit the employee) is a nightmare to him. I happened to sit through one of his review meetings, and could not help asking as to why he did not give a candid feedback about the poor quality work. He thought for a while and said, “Today, they come to me for any problem, they open up with me, they find me approachable. I do not want to spoil this relationship. If I pull them up, they will stop confiding in me.” He genuinely believed that what he was doing was right. How I wish this colleague was an exception! I have personally faced such dilemma. I have a wonderful relationship with a colleague, I find him doing something that he is not supposed to do. Do I or do I not call out?

At the core of such dilemma is the fear of ‘hurting other’s feelings’ or ‘being disliked or ‘being rejected’ by others. It’s the desire to be liked and have good relationship. But, we tend to confuse the attributes associated with likeability and what fosters relationships.

Several years ago, I attended a certification program. We had to get certified in certain area and roll it out for others back at workplace. The facilitator was approachable and reasonably friendly but he was extremely serious when it came to work. We had long days, several practice sessions mingled with constructive but tough feedback (at times, rather tough). No doubt they helped us pick up the required knowledge and skills, but they were grueling days. He was equally tough when it came to certifying us. Some were not certified, but he assured to hand-hold them at work and ensure that they master the task. He was true to his word and provided all support. I was happy to get back to work the next week. I was happier as I could roll out the program with ease, secretly thanking the facilitator for all the grueling practice sessions.

Couple of years later, I went for another certification program. Those were five fun days. Networking activities in evening with few impromptu pizza parties thrown-in in the afternoons made the program exciting. The facilitator was extremely friendly; he personally connected with each one of us. During practice sessions; he always gave encouraging and positive feedback. Rarely did anyone get tough feedback and in the end, all were certified. It ended on a happy note. But, I was in for a rude shock when I delivered my first session back at work. I got stuck in few areas and was unable to handle all questions. To top it, the participant feedback was below average.

Out of these two facilitators, who do I like more? The former! If I have to go back for another certification today, I would go back to the former. He made us work hard, but for our benefit. He gave tough feedback, but it helped us in the long run.

Thus, likeability is not about being nice and goodie-goodie, or being popular. It’s about being candid, sincere and trustworthy. Needless to say, there are some strong overlaps between being ‘nice’ and ‘likeable’. It includes attributes like warmth, openness, approachability. However, ability to be honest, candid and trustworthy are the biggest differentiators – the ones that make all the difference at workplace and also in relationships.

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