The ubiquitous Facebook thumbs-up has forever changed the notion of being "liked." Today, more than ever, liking something validates its importance and significance. But for women leaders, success and likability are often at odds. As the title of an Harvard Business Review study aptly states: "For Women Leaders, Likability and Success Hardly Go Hand-in-Hand."
Men who are assertive, decisive and direct are often admired as effective leaders. Women who exhibit these same qualities are often criticized as demanding or harsh. For executives, particularly chief executives, being a direct, assertive leader is imperative for effectual management. Yet women CEOs are stuck in a conundrum: those who are commanding leaders can be criticized by those who -- consciously or not -- feel threatened by a powerful woman. On the flipside, women execs who intentionally soften their persona are not only being inauthentic to themselves, they can jeopardize the efficient management of the company.
This phenomenon is not only problematic for female executives; for women in many professional circles, being “likable” is a prerequisite for being respected as a leader. It’s not uncommon to hear people describe successful women by saying “she is super sharp, and also really nice!” as though a female leader who is both intelligent and kind is not only a rarity, but also a surprising mix of characteristics. Furthermore, earning that respect is often contingent upon exhibiting some degree of likability, i.e. being viewed as kind, considerate, or simply "nice." For men, however, being assertive and direct in itself commands respect, regardless of whether he's considered a kind person. Even more problematic, research shows professional women at all levels are more likely to receive negative reviews and to be perceived as demanding and abrasive when compared to men in similar roles.
This double standard can significantly handicap female leaders’ ascension through the ranks. There is ample evidence demonstrating the importance of business networks in career advancement and success. However, women who are perceived as demanding risk losing the valuable endorsement and support a network offers, impeding their ability to become and remain successful leaders. Men who are dominant, strong-willed and commanding are less likely to jeopardize their networking relationships based on those characteristics alone (caveat: these are clearly generalizations, but the point should not be lost on exceptions to the rule).
How do we, as women CEOs, manage within this context?
My awareness of cultural norms greatly affects how I behave as a female executive. When I first walk into a room of new people, my subconscious reaction is to be engaging, warm and charming. I channel my feminine characteristics in hope of establishing a positive relationship with those in the room. I worry about sounding too austere or demanding in my conversations with others, and I work hard to ensure that I’ve established a personal connection to those I will be seeing and working with again.
This isn’t always a bad strategy; women leaders have been shown to be more effective communicators, collaborators and bridge-builders, which is directly related to being open and warm. But the risk is when women hold themselves back, downplay their own assertiveness, or worse of all, intentionally hide their true selves in order to avoid being perceived in a negative light. As the HBR article points out, “getting it wrong obscures the real penalties women pay (i.e. not getting promoted, or being ousted) for simply doing what they need to do, and what men are allowed to do, in order to get to the top”.
Women are highly effective leaders. Learning to channel the communication and collaboration skills more innate to women (again, a generalization), while still being firm and strong is a very effective leadership strategy. It’s a shame, however, that women leaders must remain acutely aware of how they are presenting themselves to walk the fine line of likability.