Women in Leadership

The trap of likability and being in charge

As I sat across a conference table from a client, it dawned on me that most of her life had been defined by the need to be seen as “nice.” On its surface that sounds like no big deal, but it played out in ways that exhausted her, challenged every relationship at work at and home, and often required her to be dishonest.

My client was constantly monitoring what she was about to say or do so that she could predict everyone else’s reactions. While emotional intelligencerelies on the ability to pick up on other people’s feelings, this particular manifestation was more about controlling how she was perceived. She regularly withheld sharing her desires if they conflicted with what someone else wanted. You can imagine how this affected her ability to lead effectively.

Leading a team often involves conflict between people, navigating competing deadlines, limited resources, and then throw in the need to be liked in that mix and stress abounds.

How can you care about what other people think of you and tell them what to do in the same breath? Especially when the research points to your instincts being right that when you’re in power, you’re perceived as the Queen Bee, the Bitch, or less competent that your male counterparts (cue Hillary Clinton reference).


There’s no simple answer to this question, and solving the larger social issues is not my aim here, but I’ll attempt to provide a quick framework at the individual level.

1. Be clear with yourself about what is most important to you. Which is going to bring you the greatest sense of satisfaction — being liked or growth in the face of adversity? Being liked brings comfort and a sense of belonging, and growth brings a feeling of progress and expansiveness. Being liked is not always in your control, but a growth mindset is always in your control.

2. Ask for team member feedback on how you might be able to lead more effectively. *Take a deep breath, find the people you trust to give you honest, direct and useful input, and start asking.* This is not comfortable for anyone, but doing it will give you insight that you won’t get on your own.

3. Check your stress levels. When we humans get stressed out, our vocal quality changes, our posture shifts, and we give off different signals than when we’re relaxed. If you’re stressed all the time, it’s impacting your interactions with others. There may be an underlying question or fear that’s driving your stress level and allowing it to bubble up to the surface through yoga, journaling, talking with a friend, or a couple glasses of wine may help you name that fear and then return to the first point. What’s important to you?