To be Liked or Respected: That is the Question – Musings on reputation building

Many of you have probably seen the Labels Against Women add that Pantene put out recently. It explores how the same action taken by a man is interpreted differently (and sometimes negatively) when taken by a woman. A strong man is “the boss” while a strong woman is “bossy;” a man is “neat” if he takes care of his appearance while a woman is “vain.”

All of our actions at work and in life, regardless of how we intend them to come off, are interpreted by those around us. This is what creates our reputation. Because what is a reputation, really, other than the beliefs or opinions that other people have about is?

As a young professional, and especially as a female young professional, this is a topic I struggle with on a daily basis. What do I want my reputation to be? Do I want people to like me? Do I shy away from conflict and play the peace maker so that everyone can work together in peace? Or do I stand up for what I believe? Do I rock the boat when confronted with confrontational people?

Why You Should Care

For those of you thinking, “I don’t need to worry about that! I just have to do my work well and I’m fine!” think again. In my recent job change, one thing I learned about in great detail is not only the importance of what you do, but how you get it done. Your reputation is a combination of the two, and don’t discount the how. I have seen a lot of brilliant people passed over for promotions or not considered for certain jobs, not because they couldn’t get the job done, but because of how others perceived they would get it done.

The Pitfalls Of Being Nice

I’ve seen time and again how being the nice girl gets you many “friends,” – and I put that in quotes because are they really your friends, or are they exploiting your nice nature? – but it doesn’t get you promoted or working on those sought after special assignments. Caroline Dow-Higgins, Director of Career and Professional Development at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, is a strong believer that being “liked” in the workplace is not enough to advance your career.

Don’t volunteer to take notes or get coffee for others if that is not expressly in your job description. I know that women tend to be nurturers and that’s great, but do it at home with your loved ones and don’t get too personal at work. If you find yourself acting like your co-worker’s mother or become the company pop psychologist because you are a really good listener, you are being too nice. Get back to work!

Along those lines, Lisa Mandell makes an interesting argument in response to reading Dr. Lois Frankel’s book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office – 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make The Sabotage Their Careers (which I intend to read at my earliest convenience). Mandell writes that the strategies we learned in kindergarten that made us nice girls, raising our hands and sitting still, won’t get us very far in the work place.

Some of the common mistakes that nice girls make are:

1) Waiting to be given what you want (because that’s how most people get themselves promoted – not).

2) Avoiding office politics

3) Sharing too much personal information

4) Decorating your office like your living room (Guilty. You should see my beautiful pictures and bring pink tack boards…)

5) Over-apologizing (*said with a great deal of sarcasm* because when someone runs into you in the hallway, it’s clearly your fault).

Can You Try And Be Both?

For those of you asking, “why can’t I be both?” there are those out there who argue that it can be done. Kare Anderson, an author and contributor at Forbes, maintains that we can actually be liked and respected. In her article, “How To Be Respected And Liked” Anderson argues that respect comes from your strength (skill and will) and that being liked comes from your warmth (shared concerns or interests). This is an eternal balancing act, however, so make sure you’re ready for the pendulum effect. And ladies, you might not want to do it the same way you see men doing it. (Read her article for more details on that!)

But as Sharon Sandberg argues in Lean In, “Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women,” and that, “…successful women pay a likeability penalty specifically in arenas considered to be male domains.” So this may be a great strategy for the gentlemen out there! But maybe not quite the best strategy for the ladies…

Why I Choose Being Respected Over Being Nice

Maybe it was all of my time studying the Italian renaissance in Florence that has swayed me, but when it comes to deciding whether to be liked or respected, I side with Machiavelli:  “It is better to be feared [or respected] than loved, if you cannot be both.”

This may also stem from the fact that I am a very ambitious person. I make no secret of the fact that I want to learn to be a leader one day. That’s just how I’m wired. When I was 4 years old, one of my preschool teachers told my mother that she was concerned becuase I only seemed to have one friend at school. When my mother confronted me with this information, I wasn’t surprised or flustered. In fact, I confidently smiled at my mother and voiced what I thought was the best solution to the situation, “Don’t worry Mom! I’ll find someone new to follow me tomorrow!”

While that’s probably not the best model of leadership, I still take it as a sign that I was hardwired to lead.

But be prepared. Being respected isn’t the least bumpy road; in fact, it’s probably the bumpiest. You’re going to make waves. You’re going to challenge “how we’ve always done things.” And that’s not easy. The American revolution wasn’t a discussion over tea; it was a fierce and bloody battle for respect and independence. While I hope you’re career isn’t bloody, if you want to advance, you’re going to have to work for that respect.

If you want to be respected at work, here are a few ideas for you to think about:

1) When you make decisions, don’t worry about what everyone will think about you, but rather think about how that decision will impact the business. (Remember, just because you make a hard decision doesn’t mean people have to hate you for it. This is where the how comes in. You can still “tell someone go to hell and make them believe they’ll enjoy the trip.”)

2) The golden rule: treat others the way you yourself want to be treated. If you treat others with respect, they will likely return the courtesy (I hope!).

3) Be accountable for your mistakes. They’re going to happen when you take risks. But if you acknowledge them and share what you’ve learned from them, others will likely respect you for it.

So, Where Do You Stand?

What do you want your reputation to look like as you build your career? What do you want to be known for? If being liked and being popular is important to you, then by all means go there! Just remember, in the infinate words of Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, “Hagrid, if you’re holding out for universal popularity, I’m afraid you will be in this cabin for a very long time.”

16 thoughts on “To be Liked or Respected: That is the Question – Musings on reputation building

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  2. We recently had a discussion about this ad at a women’s networking luncheon and it brought to light the stereotypes that we deal with as women in a “mans” field (engineering). The most interesting thing we discussed is our own subconscious prejudices against women we may not even be aware of. Harvard came up with a really interesting study you might want to take a look at some time (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/). I took the Gender-Science one, but there is a Gender-Career one also. I was actually surprised at my results (ie – I thought I would be more subconsciously prejudice against women than I was).

    • I’ve often wondered what some of the great political thinkers of the past would say about politics in this day and age. That sounds like a relatively accurate modern interpretation of Machiavelli!

    • I know what you mean Monique! I straddle both of them, but I’ve recently seen how it is somewhat holding me back. Part of writing this was even to educate myself on what I should be doing. Thanks for your thoughts!

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  6. I have made almost all the “mistakes” you outline, the ones nice girls make, in various stages of my life. :) I think I was a “nice girl” for a very long time, and it was very difficult to break out of that mould– partly, I think, due to reputation and response. I agree that in the workplace, a reputation will inevitably be formed of every person. It’s part of human politics, and therefore part of office politics. I also agree that how you get the job done is important. I am the opposite of you– I am an enthusiastic supporter, someone who is happy writing things for someone else to deliver. I always joke that I have a civil service bone somewhere essential in my body, and I have experienced working in of civil service. But I agree that how you do something matters: I think that there is definitely space for compassion in the office and that the line being liked and respected is a facetious one. I think consistent fairness (as best as you can manage it), showing respect to everyone equally, and drawing a line between personal and professional are all very important to being both liked and respected. But I think that if one values one’s reputation too much, subscribes to the hype, so to speak, one runs several risks– making decisions that are not appropriate to the current context because of the fear of ruining one’s reputation, or making decisions that are self-serving and will make one look good at the expense of someone else, for example.

  7. Thanks for an interesting, thoughtful, post.

    However I would apply ‘bossy’, ‘pushy’, ‘vain’ etc to all the men portrayed as well. Doesn’t ‘neat’ as a label mean the same as ‘vain’ or ‘prissy’ anyway when applied to a man?

    When the first man came up I thought ‘smug’, not ‘boss’. The woman giving the speech looked ‘angry’ not pushy. The label for the man working all night would be ‘office slave’, ‘has a nasty boss’, ‘spent all day on facebook instead of getting work done’.

    As for the office politics, having pointy elbows might help you get to the top but when you get there will you like it up there working all day and all night and liked by nobody?

  8. I’m a few days late and am playing catch-up with all the blogs I follow, but I just wanted to say that I loved your post. I’ve been in the workforce for years and I’m still trying to figure out that balance between being nice and being respected. (Like you, I think respect over popularity is the way to go, though it took me longer than I care to admit to figure that out…)

    • I know what you mean! It’s also easier said than done…

      I’ve been talking with a lot of folks who maintain you can do both lately, and I will admit that they do exist! But sometimes it seems that those people are few and far between…

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  9. It is, indeed, more important to be respected than liked. Both would be great, but one doesn’t have to change himself just to fit in. One must maintain self-respect–and that’s the important thing. Because when you respect yourself, you will be respected by others as well.

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