This Is How "Likability" Might Be Affecting You In The Workplace

Woman Smiling with Her Arms Crossed in a Casual Office

We may all strive to be liked, at least sometimes, but does it really affect our work lives if we are? According to a new study, for women it really does.

The recent study, published in the Economic Journal, found evidence of an inherent bias when it comes to the relationship between our perceived likability and how much our work partners are willing to cooperate with us on projects.

When does likability matter?

The report was based on a series of experiments. The first involved one partner rating an assigned partner on their "likability" based on a photo and then being told how they were rated in turn. The pairs were then set tasks that were rewarded based on how well the pair cooperated.

The report used financial contribution as a means for judging cooperation. Participants were asked to contribute up to 6 euros for the initial endowment of a project, and while, in general, women contributed slightly less overall, researchers also found that women in low mutual likability teams contributed 37% less, suggesting less cooperation between partners who didn't like each other at first glance.

In interactions, the researchers found that likability had no impact in same-gender male pairs, but when those men were paired with women, likability did play a role. Men contributed around the same amount when paired with other men, regardless of how "likable" their partner was but tended to contribute more to pairings when they viewed the woman they were paired with as more likable. Thus, men were more cooperative with "likable" women but equally cooperative with all men.

"While likeability matters for women in every one of their interactions," said Leonie Gerhards, Ph.D., the paper's lead author, "it matters for men only if they interact with the opposite sex."

The overall conclusion was that while women consider likability in interactions with both sexes, men only consider it when interacting with the opposite gender. They also found that overall, marked "dislikability" had a more serious impact than marked likability.


How does this affect us in the real world?

According to this paper, previous research has indicated that "women earn lower wages than men, are less likely to be promoted to top management positions, and are underrepresented in higher levels of the corporate hierarchy."

The results of this study show that women fare worse in the face of perceived likability (or lack thereof), which may contribute to these other economic and job market trends. A direct link can be seen based on the fact that in their experiment, women earned an average of 4.36% less.

This study points to concrete evidence of the way gender can sway our interactions, and simply by being aware of this, we can make an effort to prevent it. The researchers suggest that while the knowledge is enough, workplaces should attempt "to implement and promote what we would call 'likeability neutral' work cultures," identifying placing emphasis on performance and professional behavior over personal perceived likability.

For future studies, the researchers want to see how letting people adjust their likability ratings after interacting with a partner may change the results of the study, as in this study they were rated at first sight based on an image. They also suggest that changing the form of interaction (such as having people talk on the phone versus in person) may show interesting sub-trends.

While the results of this research may have you thinking you need to work harder at being liked, it's important to not worry too much about what other people think. This report calls attention to the bias, but that's not a call for women to work harder at being liked—we need to acknowledge the bias to move past this problematic trend.

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