Thursday, April 4, 2013

Lean In, Be Liked, Join the Fad

Researchers Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman report in the Harvard Business review that "New Research Shows Success Doesn't Make Women Less Likable".

As I read it, the research doesn't actually say that, even if you accept the label "likeability" for the thing that they are measuring. At the very most, their research shows that the women who do succeed are women who are slightly more "likeable", on average, than the equivalent men. But that doesn't mean that ten times as many women who were "likeable" on that scale didn't get blown aside in the struggle for success, so the headline is just not supported by the research.

Here's the quiz itself. Unfortunately Zenger and Folkman demand your full contact information to review it, so here's the items from that list:

  1. Do you stay in touch with issues and concerns of individuals in the work group?
  2. How well do you balance "getting results" with a concern for other’s needs?
  3. Are you trusted by all members of the work group?
  4. Do you promote a high level of cooperation between all members of the work group?
  5. Are you a role model that sets a good example for his/her work group?
  6. Do you give honest feedback in a helpful way?
  7. Are you truly concerned about developing others?
  8. How well do you inspire others to high levels of effort and performance?
  9. Are you trusted by others to use good judgment when making decisions?
  10. Do you work hard to "walk the talk" and avoid saying one thing and doing another?
Some of those questions are reasonably related to likeability, but they just aren't what most people think of when the word comes up, especially as regards female managers. "A concern for others" is properly on the table for "likeable", but the heart of the question asks how well you balance "getting results" against that concern. Thus, it is a question not of likeability, but of effective management. A truly likeable person can score low on that question because he overemphasizes that concern for others, not just because he underemphasizes it.

The bottom line is that the researchers selected pre-existing questions about managerial or executive competence from their database, and rechewed that existing data based on relabeling those questions "likeability". They come to the following conclusion based on their results:

Our conclusion? Likability and success actually go together remarkably well for women. Parents can accurately and unhesitatingly tell their daughters, "Aspire for positions of power and influence, and when you get promoted, it is totally your choice whether you act in a way that will have people continue to like you or not."
Not a bad advice, whether or not the data tends to support it. But I also note the following quote and think there's another piece of important advice to be had.

Both men and women took a hit in likability when they moved from first-level supervisor to middle manager. But this drop was more precipitous for men. After that, the women made up some ground, while men's standing continued to erode, significantly widening the gap between them.
The advice is for men, and it's this: when you get into management, spend some time giving honest feedback, developing others, and letting people know you are in touch with their concerns, even when you aren't necessarily going to decide their way. It will make you seem more effective, and also more "likeable", at least as defined by Zenger and Folkman.

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